Skip to main content

Full text of "Jared Diamond-Guns Germs and Steel"

See other formats




Jared Diamond 

W. W. Norton & Company 
New York London 

More praise for 
Guns, Germs, and Steel 

"No scientist brings more experience from the laboratory and field, none 
thinks more deeply about social issues or addresses them with greater clar- 
ity, than Jared Diamond as illustrated by Guns, Germs, and Steel. In this 
remarkably readable book he shows how history and biology can enrich 
one another to produce a deeper understanding of the human condition." 
— Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Professor, Harvard University 

"Serious, groundbreaking biological studies of human history only seem 
to come along once every generation or so. . .. Now Jared Diamond 
must be added to their select number. . . . Diamond meshes technological 
mastery with historical sweep, anecdotal delight with broad conceptual 
vision, and command of sources with creative leaps. No finer work of its 
kind has been published this year, or for many past." 

— Martin Sieff, Washington Times 

"[Diamond's] masterful synthesis is a refreshingly unconventional history 
informed by anthropology, behavioral ecology, linguistics, epidemiology, 
archeology, and technological development." 

— Publishers Weekly (starred review) 

"[Jared Diamond] is broadly erudite, writes in a style that pleasantly 
expresses scientific concepts in vernacular American English, and deals 
almost exclusively in questions that should interest everyone concerned 
about how humanity has developed. . . . [He] has done us all a great 
favor by supplying a rock-solid alternative to the racist answer. ... A 
wonderfully interesting book." — Alfred W. Crosby, Los Angeles Times 

"Fascinating and extremely important [A] synopsis doesn't do credit 

to the immense subtlety of this book." 

— David Brown, Washington Post Book World 

"Deserves the attention of anyone concerned with the history of mankind 
at its most fundamental level. It is an epochal work. Diamond has written 

a summary of human history that can be accounted, for the time being, 
as Darwinian in its authority." — Thomas M. Disch, New Leader 

"A wonderfully engrossing book. . . . Jared Diamond takes us on an 
exhilarating world tour of history that makes us rethink all our ideas 
about ourselves and other peoples and our places in the overall scheme 
of things." — Christopher Ehret, Professor of African History, UCLA 

"Jared Diamond masterfully draws together recent discoveries in fields of 
inquiry as diverse as archaeology and epidemiology, as he illuminates 
how and why the human societies of different continents followed widely 
divergent pathways of development over the past 13,000 years." 

— Bruce D. Smith, Director, Archaeobiology Program, 

Smithsonian Institution 

"The question, 'Why did human societies have such diverse fates?' has 
usually received racist answers. Mastering information from many differ- 
ent fields, Jared Diamond convincingly demonstrates that head starts and 
local conditions can explain much of the course of human history. His 
impressive account will appeal to a vast readership." 

— Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Professor of Genetics, Stanford University 

To Esa, Kariniga, Omwai, Paran, Sauakari, Wiwor, 
and all my other New Guinea friends and teachers — 
masters of a difficult environment 

Copyright © 1999,1997 by Jared Diamond 

All rights reserved 
Printed in the United States of America 
First published as a Norton paperback 1999 

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, 
write to Permissions, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New 
York, NY 10110. 

The text of this book is composed in Sabon 
with the display set in Trajan Bold 
Composition and manufacturing by the Maple-Vail Book 
Manufacturing Group 
Book design by Chris Welch 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 
Diamond, Jared M. 
Guns, germs, and steel: the fates of human societies / Jared Diamond, 
p. cm. 

Includes bibliographical references and index. 
ISBN 0-393-31755-2 
1. Social evolution. 2. Civilization — History. 3. Ethnology. 4. Human 
beings — Effect of environment on. 5. Culture diffusion. I. Title. 
HM206.D48 1997 
303.4— dc21 96-37068 


W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 101 10 

W. W. Norton 6c Company Ltd., 10 Coptic Street, London WC1A 1PU 


Preface to the Paperback Edition 9 

The regionally differing courses of history 1 3 



What happened on all the continents before 11,000 B. C.J 3 5 


How geography molded societies on Polynesian islands 5 3 


Why the Inca emperor Atahuallpa did not capture 
King Charles I of Spain 6 7 




The roots of guns, germs, and steel 8 5 



Geographic differences in the onset of food production 9 3 


Causes of the spread of food production 104 


The unconscious development of ancient crops 114 


Why did peoples of some regions fail to domesticate 
plants? 13 1 

Why were most big wild mammal species never 
domesticated? 1 57 


Why did food production spread at different rates on 
different continents? 17 6 




The evolution of germs 19 5 


The evolution of writing 115 


The evolution of technology 2 3 9 


The evolution of government and religion 16 5 




The histories of Australia and New Guinea 2 9 5 



The history of East Asia 3 2 2 


The history of the Austronesian expansion 3 3 4 


The histories of Eurasia and the Americas compared 3 5 4 


The history of Africa 3 7 6 



Acknowledgments All 

Further Readings A 29 

Credits 4 5 9 

Index 4 6 1 



everybody for the last 13,000 years. The question motivating the 
book is: Why did history unfold differently on different continents? In case 
this question immediately makes you shudder at the thought that you are 
about to read a racist treatise, you aren't: as you will see, the answers 
to the question don't involve human racial differences at all. The book's 
emphasis is on the search for ultimate explanations, and on pushing back 
the chain of historical causation as far as possible. 

Most books that set out to recount world history concentrate on histor- 
ies of literate Eurasian and North African societies. Native societies of 
other parts of the world — sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Island South- 
east Asia, Australia, New Guinea, the Pacific Islands — receive only brief 
treatment, mainly as concerns what happened to them very late in their 
history, after they were discovered and subjugated by western Europeans. 
Even within Eurasia, much more space gets devoted to the history of west- 
ern Eurasia than of China, India, Japan, tropical Southeast Asia, and other 
eastern Eurasian societies. History before the emergence of writing around 
3,000 B.C. also receives brief treatment, although it constitutes 99.9% of 
the five-million-year history of the human species. 

Such narrowly focused accounts of world history suffer from three dis- 
advantages. First, increasing numbers of people today are, quite under- 
standably, interested in other societies besides those of western Eurasia. 
After all, those "other" societies encompass most of the world's popula- 
tion and the vast majority of the world's ethnic, cultural, and linguistic 


groups. Some of them already are, and others are becoming, among the 
world's most powerful economies and political forces. 

Second, even for people specifically interested in the shaping of the 
modern world, a history limited to developments since the emergence of 
writing cannot provide deep understanding. It is not the case that societies 
on the different continents were comparable to each other until 3,000 B.C., 
whereupon western Eurasian societies suddenly developed writing and 
began for the first time to pull ahead in other respects as well. Instead, 
already by 3,000 B.C., there were Eurasian and North African societies not 
only with incipient writing but also with centralized state governments, 
cities, widespread use of metal tools and weapons, use of domesticated 
animals for transport and traction and mechanical power, and reliance on 
agriculture and domestic animals for food. Throughout most or all parts 
of other continents, none of those things existed at that time; some but not 
all of them emerged later in parts of the Native Americas and sub-Saharan 
Africa, but only over the course of the next five millennia; and none of 
them emerged in Aboriginal Australia. That should already warn us that 
the roots of western Eurasian dominance in the modern world lie in the 
preliterate past before 3,000 B.C. (By western Eurasian dominance, I mean 
the dominance of western Eurasian societies themselves and of the socie- 
ties that they spawned on other continents.) 

Third, a history focused on western Eurasian societies completely 
bypasses the obvious big question. Why were those societies the ones that 
became disproportionately powerful and innovative? The usual answers 
to that question invoke proximate forces, such as the rise of capitalism, 
mercantilism, scientific inquiry, technology, and nasty germs that killed 
peoples of other continents when they came into contact with western Eur- 
asians. But why did all those ingredients of conquest arise in western 
Eurasia, and arise elsewhere only to a lesser degree or not at all? 

All those ingredients are just proximate factors, not ultimate explana- 
tions. Why didn't capitalism flourish in Native Mexico, mercantilism in 
sub-Saharan Africa, scientific inquiry in China, advanced technology in 
Native North America, and nasty germs in Aboriginal Australia? If one 
responds by invoking idiosyncratic cultural factors — e.g., scientific inquiry 
supposedly stifled in China by Confucianism but stimulated in western 
Eurasia by Greek or Judaeo-Christian traditions — then one is continuing 
to ignore the need for ultimate explanations: why didn't traditions like 
Confucianism and the Judaeo-Christian ethic instead develop in western 


Eurasia and China, respectively? In addition, one is ignoring the fact that 
Confucian China was technologically more advanced than western 
Eurasia until about A.D. 1400. 

It is impossible to understand even just western Eurasian societies them- 
selves, if one focuses on them. The interesting questions concern the dis- 
tinctions between them and other societies. Answering those questions 
requires us to understand all those other societies as well, so that western 
Eurasian societies can be fitted into the broader context. 

Some readers may feel that I am going to the opposite extreme from 
conventional histories, by devoting too little space to western Eurasia at 
the expense of other parts of the world. I would answer that some other 
parts of the world are very instructive, because they encompass so many 
societies and such diverse societies within a small geographical area. Other 
readers may find themselves agreeing with one reviewer of this book. With 
mildly critical tongue in cheek, the reviewer wrote that I seem to view 
world history as an onion, of which the modern world constitutes only the 
surface, and whose layers are to be peeled back in the search for historical 
understanding. Yes, world history is indeed such an onion! But that peeling 
back of the onion's layers is fascinating, challenging — and of overwhelm- 
ing importance to us today, as we seek to grasp our past's lessons for our 




ferently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 
13,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age, some parts of the world 
developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts devel- 
oped only nonliterate farming societies, and still others retained societies 
of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast 
long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with 
metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies. While 
those differences constitute the most basic fact of world history, the rea- 
sons for them remain uncertain and controversial. This puzzling question 
of their origins was posed to me 25 years ago in a simple, personal form. 

In July 1972 I was walking along a beach on the tropical island of New 
Guinea, where as a biologist I study bird evolution. I had already heard 
about a remarkable local politician named Yali, who was touring the dis- 
trict then. By chance, Yali and I were walking in the same direction on that 
day, and he overtook me. We walked together for an hour, talking during 
the whole time. 

Yali radiated charisma and energy. His eyes flashed in a mesmerizing 
way. He talked confidently about himself, but he also asked lots of probing 
questions and listened intently. Our conversation began with a subject then 


on every New Guinean's mind — the rapid pace of political developments. 
Papua New Guinea, as Yali's nation is now called, was at that time still 
administered by Australia as a mandate of the United Nations, but inde- 
pendence was in the air. Yali explained to me his role in getting local peo- 
ple to prepare for self-government. 

After a while, Yali turned the conversation and began to quiz me. He 
had never been outside New Guinea and had not been educated beyond 
high school, but his curiosity was insatiable. First, he wanted to know 
about my work on New Guinea birds (including how much I got paid for 
it). I explained to him how different groups of birds had colonized New 
Guinea over the course of millions of years. He then asked how the ances- 
tors of his own people had reached New Guinea over the last tens of thou- 
sands of years, and how white Europeans had colonized New Guinea 
within the last 200 years. 

The conversation remained friendly, even though the tension between 
the two societies that Yali and I represented was familiar to both of us. 
Two centuries ago, all New Guineans were still "living in the Stone Age." 
That is, they still used stone tools similar to those superseded in Europe 
by metal tools thousands of years ago, and they dwelt in villages not orga- 
nized under any centralized political authority. Whites had arrived, 
imposed centralized government, and brought material goods whose value 
New Guineans instantly recognized, ranging from steel axes, matches, and 
medicines to clothing, soft drinks, and umbrellas. In New Guinea all these 
goods were referred to collectively as "cargo." 

Many of the white colonialists openly despised New Guineans as 
"primitive." Even the least able of New Guinea's white "masters," as they 
were still called in 1972, enjoyed a far higher standard of living than New 
Guineans, higher even than charismatic politicians like Yali. Yet Yali had 
quizzed lots of whites as he was then quizzing me, and I had quizzed lots 
of New Guineans. He and I both knew perfectly well that New Guineans 
are on the average at least as smart as Europeans. All those things must 
have been on Yali's mind when, with yet another penetrating glance of his 
flashing eyes, he asked me, "Why is it that you white people developed so 
much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little 
cargo of our own?" 

It was a simple question that went to the heart of life as Yali experienced 
it. Yes, there still is a huge difference between the lifestyle of the average 


New Guinean and that of the average European or American. Comparable 
differences separate the lifestyles of other peoples of the world as well. 
Those huge disparities must have potent causes that one might think 
would be obvious. 

Yet Yali's apparently simple question is a difficult one to answer. I didn't 
have an answer then. Professional historians still disagree about the solu- 
tion; most are no longer even asking the question. In the years since Yali 
and I had that conversation, I have studied and written about other aspects 
of human evolution, history, and language. This book, written twenty-five 
years later, attempts to answer Yali. 

ALTHOUGH YALI'S QUESTION concerned only the contrasting life- 
styles of New Guineans and of European whites, it can be extended to a 
larger set of contrasts within the modern world. Peoples of Eurasian ori- 
gin, especially those still living in Europe and eastern Asia, plus those 
transplanted to North America, dominate the modern world in wealth and 
power. Other peoples, including most Africans, have thrown off European 
colonial domination but remain far behind in wealth and power. Still other 
peoples, such as the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, the Americas, and 
southernmost Africa, are no longer even masters of their own lands but 
have been decimated, subjugated, and in some cases even exterminated by 
European colonialists. 

Thus, questions about inequality in the modern world can be reformu- 
lated as follows. Why did wealth and power become distributed as they 
now are, rather than in some other way? For instance, why weren't Native 
Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, 
subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians? 

We can easily push this question back one step. As of the year A.D. 
1500, when Europe's worldwide colonial expansion was just beginning, 
peoples on different continents already differed greatly in technology and 
political organization. Much of Europe, Asia, and North Africa was the 
site of metal-equipped states or empires, some of them on the threshold of 
industrialization. Two Native American peoples, the Aztecs and the Incas, 
ruled over empires with stone tools. Parts of sub-Saharan Africa were 
divided among small states or chiefdoms with iron tools. Most other peo- 
ples — including all those of Australia and New Guinea, many Pacific 


islands, much of the Americas, and small parts of sub-Saharan Africa — 
lived as farming tribes or even still as hunter-gatherer bands using stone 

Of course, those technological and political differences as of A.D. 1500 
were the immediate cause of the modern world's inequalities. Empires with 
steel weapons were able to conquer or exterminate tribes with weapons of 
stone and wood. How, though, did the world get to be the way it was in 
A.D. 1500? 

Once again, we can easily push this question back one step further, by 
drawing on written histories and archaeological discoveries. Until the end 
of the last Ice Age, around 11,000 B.C., all peoples on all continents were 
still hunter-gatherers. Different rates of development on different conti- 
nents, from 11,000 B.C. to A.D. 1500, were what led to the technological 
and political inequalities of A.D. 1500. While Aboriginal Australians and 
many Native Americans remained hunter-gatherers, most of Eurasia and 
much of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa gradually developed agri- 
culture, herding, metallurgy, and complex political organization. Parts of 
Eurasia, and one area of the Americas, independently developed writing 
as well. However, each of these new developments appeared earlier in 
Eurasia than elsewhere. For instance, the mass production of bronze tools, 
which was just beginning in the South American Andes in the centuries 
before A.D. 1500, was already established in parts of Eurasia over 4,000 
years earlier. The stone technology of the Tasmanians, when first encoun- 
tered by European explorers in A.D. 1642, was simpler than that prevalent 
in parts of Upper Paleolithic Europe tens of thousands of years earlier. 

Thus, we can finally rephrase the question about the modern world's 
inequalities as follows: why did human development proceed at such dif- 
ferent rates on different continents? Those disparate rates constitute histo- 
ry's broadest pattern and my book's subject. 

While this book is thus ultimately about history and prehistory, its sub- 
ject is not of just academic interest but also of overwhelming practical and 
political importance. The history of interactions among disparate peoples 
is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics, and geno- 
cide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down 
after many centuries, and that are actively continuing in some of the 
world's most troubled areas today. 

For example, much of Africa is still struggling with its legacies from 
recent colonialism. In other regions — including much of Central America, 


Mexico, Peru, New Caledonia, the former Soviet Union, and parts of Indo- 
nesia — civil unrest or guerrilla warfare pits still-numerous indigenous pop- 
ulations against governments dominated by descendants of invading 
conquerors. Many other indigenous populations — such as native Hawaii 
ians, Aboriginal Australians, native Siberians, and Indians in the United 
States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile — became so reduced in num- 
bers by genocide and disease that they are now greatly outnumbered by 
the descendants of invaders. Although thus incapable of mounting a civil 
war, they are nevertheless increasingly asserting their rights. 

In addition to these current political and economic reverberations of 
past collisions among peoples, there are current linguistic reverberations — 
especially the impending disappearance of most of the modern world's 
6,000 surviving languages, becoming replaced by English, Chinese, Rus- 
sian, and a few other languages whose numbers of speakers have increased 
enormously in recent centuries. All these problems of the modern world 
result from the different historical trajectories implicit in Yali's question. 

BEFORE SEEKING ANSWERS to Yali's question, we should pause to 
consider some objections to discussing it at all. Some people take offense 
at the mere posing of the question, for several reasons. 

One objection goes as follows. If we succeed in explaining how some 
people came to dominate other people, may this not seem to justify the 
domination? Doesn't it seem to say that the outcome was inevitable, and 
that it would therefore be futile to try to change the outcome today? This 
objection rests on a common tendency to confuse an explanation of causes 
with a justification or acceptance of results. What use one makes of a his- 
torical explanation is a question separate from the explanation itself. 
Understanding is more often used to try to alter an outcome than to repeat 
or perpetuate it. That's why psychologists try to understand the minds of 
murderers and rapists, why social historians try to understand genocide, 
and why physicians try to understand the causes of human disease. Those 
investigators do not seek to justify murder, rape, genocide, and illness, 
instead, they seek to use their understanding of a chain of causes to inter- 
rupt the chain. 

Second, doesn't addressing Yali's question automatically involve a 
Eurocentric approach to history, a glorification of western Europeans, and 
an obsession with the prominence of western Europe and Europeanized 


America in the modern world? Isn't that prominence just an ephemeral 
phenomenon of the last few centuries, now fading behind the prominence 
of Japan and Southeast Asia? In fact, most of this book will deal with 
peoples other than Europeans. Rather than focus solely on interactions 
between Europeans and non-Europeans, we shall also examine interac- 
tions between different non-European peoples — especially those that took 
place within sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and New 
Guinea, among peoples native to those areas. Far from glorifying peoples 
of western European origin, we shall see that most basic elements of their 
civilization were developed by other peoples living elsewhere and were 
then imported to western Europe. 

Third, don't words such as "civilization," and phrases such as "rise of 
civilization," convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal 
hunter-gatherers are miserable, and history for the past 13,000 years has 
involved progress toward greater human happiness? In fact, I do not 
assume that industrialized states are "better" than hunter-gatherer tribes, 
or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based 
statehood represents "progress," or that it has led to an increase in human 
happiness. My own impression, from having divided my life between 
United States cities and New Guinea villages, is that the so-called blessings 
of civilization are mixed. For example, compared with hunter-gatherers, 
citizens of modern industrialized states enjoy better medical care, lower 
risk of death by homicide, and a longer life span, but receive much less 
social support from friendships and extended families. My motive for 
investigating these geographic differences in human societies is not to cele- 
brate one type of society over another but simply to understand what hap- 
pened in history. 

DOES YALI'S QUESTION really need another book to answer it? Don't 
we already know the answer? If so, what is it? 

Probably the commonest explanation involves implicitly or explicitly 
assuming biological differences among peoples. In the centuries after A.D. 
1500, as European explorers became aware of the wide differences among 
the world's peoples in technology and political organization, they assumed 
that those differences arose from differences in innate ability. With the rise 
of Darwinian theory, explanations were recast in terms of natural selection 
and of evolutionary descent. Technologically primitive peoples were con- 



sidered evolutionary vestiges of human descent from apelike ancestors. 
The displacement of such peoples by colonists from industrialized societies 
exemplified the survival of the fittest. With the later rise of genetics, the 
explanations were recast once again, in genetic terms. Europeans became 
considered genetically more intelligent than Africans, and especially more 
so than Aboriginal Australians. 

Today, segments of Western society publicly repudiate racism. Yet many 
(perhaps most!) Westerners continue to accept racist explanations pri- 
vately or subconsciously. In Japan and many other countries, such expla- 
nations are still advanced publicly and without apology. Even educated 
white Americans, Europeans, and Australians, when the subject of Austra- 
lian Aborigines comes up, assume that there is something primitive about 
the Aborigines themselves. They certainly look different from whites. 
Many of the living descendants of those Aborigines who survived the era 
of European colonization are now finding it difficult to succeed economi- 
cally in white Australian society. 

A seemingly compelling argument goes as follows. White immigrants to 
Australia built a literate, industrialized, politically centralized, democratic 
state based on metal tools and on food production, all within a century of 
colonizing a continent where the Aborigines had been living as tribal 
hunter-gatherers without metal for at least 40,000 years. Here were two 
successive experiments in human development, in which the environment 
was identical and the sole variable was the people occupying that environ- 
ment. What further proof could be wanted to establish that the differences 
between Aboriginal Australian and European societies arose from differ- 
ences between the peoples themselves? 

The objection to such racist explanations is not just that they are loath- 
some, but also that they are wrong. Sound evidence for the existence of 
human differences in intelligence that parallel human differences in tech- 
nology is lacking. In fact, as I shall explain in a moment, modern "Stone 
Age" peoples are on the average probably more intelligent, not less intelli- 
gent, than industrialized peoples. Paradoxical as it may sound, we shall 
see in Chapter 15 that white immigrants to Australia do not deserve the 
credit usually accorded to them for building a literate industrialized society 
with the other virtues mentioned above. In addition, peoples who until 
recently were technologically primitive — such as Aboriginal Australians 
and New Guineans — routinely master industrial technologies when given 
opportunities to do so. 


An enormous effort by cognitive psychologists has gone into the search 
for differences in IQ between peoples of different geographic origins now 
living in the same country. In particular, numerous white American psy- 
chologists have been trying for decades to demonstrate that black Ameri- 
cans of African origins are innately less intelligent than white Americans 
of European origins. However, as is well known, the peoples compared 
differ greatly in their social environment and educational opportunities. 
This fact creates double difficulties for efforts to test the hypothesis that 
intellectual differences underlie technological differences. First, even our 
cognitive abilities as adults are heavily influenced by the social environ- 
ment that we experienced during childhood, making it hard to discern any 
influence of preexisting genetic differences. Second, tests of cognitive abil- 
ity (like IQ tests) tend to measure cultural learning and not pure innate 
intelligence, whatever that is. Because of those undoubted effects of child- 
hood environment and learned knowledge on IQ test results, the psycholo- 
gists' efforts to date have not succeeded in convincingly establishing the 
postulated genetic deficiency in IQs of nonwhite peoples. 

My perspective on this controversy comes from 33 years of working 
with New Guineans in their own intact societies. From the very beginning 
of my work with New Guineans, they impressed me as being on the aver- 
age more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in 
things and people around them than the average European or American 
is. At some tasks that one might reasonably suppose to reflect aspects of 
brain function, such as the ability to form a mental map of unfamiliar 
surroundings, they appear considerably more adept than Westerners. Of 
course, New Guineans tend to perform poorly at tasks that Westerners 
have been trained to perform since childhood and that New Guineans have 
not. Hence when unschooled New Guineans from remote villages visit 
towns, they look stupid to Westerners. Conversely, I am constantly aware 
of how stupid I look to New Guineans when I'm with them in the jungle, 
displaying my incompetence at simple tasks (such as following a jungle 
trail or erecting a shelter) at which New Guineans have been trained since 
childhood and I have not. 

It's easy to recognize two reasons why my impression that New Guin- 
eans are smarter than Westerners may be correct. First, Europeans have for 
thousands of years been living in densely populated societies with central 
governments, police, and judiciaries. In those societies, infectious epidemic 
diseases of dense populations (such as smallpox) were historically the 


major cause of death, while murders were relatively uncommon and a state 
of war was the exception rather than the rule. Most Europeans who 
escaped fatal infections also escaped other potential causes of death and 
proceeded to pass on their genes. Today, most live-born Western infants 
survive fatal infections as well and reproduce themselves, regardless of 
their intelligence and the genes they bear. In contrast, New Guineans have 
been living in societies where human numbers were too low for epidemic 
diseases of dense populations to evolve. Instead, traditional New Guineans 
suffered high mortality from murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, 
and problems in procuring food. 

Intelligent people are likelier than less intelligent ones to escape those 
causes of high mortality in traditional New Guinea societies. However, 
the differential mortality from epidemic diseases in traditional European 
societies had little to do with intelligence, and instead involved genetic 
resistance dependent on details of body chemistry. For example, people 
with blood group B or O have a greater resistance to smallpox than do 
people with blood group A. That is, natural selection promoting genes for 
intelligence has probably been far more ruthless in New Guinea than in 
more densely populated, politically complex societies, where natural selec- 
tion for body chemistry was instead more potent. 

Besides this genetic reason, there is also a second reason why New 
Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern Euro- 
pean and American children spend much of their time being passively 
entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American 
household, the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional 
New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive 
entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively 
doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. 
Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood 
stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the 
irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimula- 
tion. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the supe- 
rior average mental function displayed by New Guineans. 

That is, in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically supe- 
rior to Westerners, and they surely are superior in escaping the devastating 
developmental disadvantages under which most children in industrialized 
societies now grow up. Certainly, there is no hint at all of any intellectual 
disadvantage of New Guineans that could serve to answer Yali's question. 


The same two genetic and childhood developmental factors are likely to 
distinguish not only New Guineans from Westerners, but also hunter-gath- 
erers and other members of technologically primitive societies from mem- 
bers of technologically advanced societies in general. Thus, the usual racist 
assumption has to be turned on its head. Why is it that Europeans, despite 
their likely genetic disadvantage and (in modern times) their undoubted 
developmental disadvantage, ended up with much more of the cargo? Why 
did New Guineans wind up technologically primitive, despite what I 
believe to be their superior intelligence? 

A GENETIC EXPLANATION isn't the only possible answer to Yali's ques- 
tion. Another one, popular with inhabitants of northern Europe, invokes 
the supposed stimulatory effects of their homeland's cold climate and the 
inhibitory effects of hot, humid, tropical climates on human creativity and 
energy. Perhaps the seasonally variable climate at high latitudes poses 
more diverse challenges than does a seasonally constant tropical climate. 
Perhaps cold climates require one to be more technologically inventive to 
survive, because one must build a warm home and make warm clothing, 
whereas one can survive in the tropics with simpler housing and no cloth- 
ing. Or the argument can be reversed to reach the same conclusion: the 
long winters at high latitudes leave people with much time in which to sit 
indoors and invent. 

Although formerly popular, this type of explanation, too, fails to sur- 
vive scrutiny. As we shall see, the peoples of northern Europe contributed 
nothing of fundamental importance to Eurasian civilization until the last 
thousand years; they simply had the good luck to live at a geographic 
location where they were likely to receive advances (such as agriculture, 
wheels, writing, and metallurgy) developed in warmer parts of Eurasia. In 
the New World the cold regions at high latitude were even more of a 
human backwater. The sole Native American societies to develop writing 
arose in Mexico south of the Tropic of Cancer; the oldest New World 
pottery comes from near the equator in tropical South America; and the 
New World society generally considered the most advanced in art, astron- 
omy, and other respects was the Classic Maya society of the tropical Yuca- 
tan and Guatemala in the first millennium A.D. 

Still a third type of answer to Yali invokes the supposed importance of 
lowland river valleys in dry climates, where highly productive agriculture 


depended on large-scale irrigation systems that in turn required centralized 
bureaucracies. This explanation was suggested by the undoubted fact that 
the earliest known empires and writing systems arose in the Tigris and 
Euphrates Valleys of the Fertile Crescent and in the Nile Valley of Egypt. 
Water control systems also appear to have been associated with centralized 
political organization in some other areas of the world, including the Indus 
Valley of the Indian subcontinent, the Yellow and Yangtze Valleys of 
China, the Maya lowlands of Mesoamerica, and the coastal desert of Peru. 

However, detailed archaeological studies have shown that complex irri- 
gation systems did not accompany the rise of centralized bureaucracies but 
followed after a considerable lag. That is, political centralization arose for 
some other reason and then permitted construction of complex irrigation 
systems. None of the crucial developments preceding political centraliza- 
tion in those same parts of the world were associated with river valleys or 
with complex irrigation systems. For example, in the Fertile Crescent food 
production and village life originated in hills and mountains, not in low- 
land river valleys. The Nile Valley remained a cultural backwater for about 
3,000 years after village food production began to flourish in the hills of 
the Fertile Crescent. River valleys of the southwestern United States even- 
tually came to support irrigation agriculture and complex societies, but 
only after many of the developments on which those societies rested had 
been imported from Mexico. The river valleys of southeastern Australia 
remained occupied by tribal societies without agriculture. 

Yet another type of explanation lists the immediate factors that enabled 
Europeans to kill or conquer other peoples — especially European guns, 
infectious diseases, steel tools, and manufactured products. Such an expla- 
nation is on the right track, as those factors demonstrably were directly 
responsible for European conquests. However, this hypothesis is incom- 
plete, because it still offers only a proximate (first-stage) explanation iden- 
tifying immediate causes. It invites a search for ultimate causes: why were 
Europeans, rather than Africans or Native Americans, the ones to end up 
with guns, the nastiest germs, and steel? 

While some progress has been made in identifying those ultimate causes 
in the-case of Europe's conquest of the New World, Africa remains a big 
puzzle. Africa is the continent where protohumans evolved for the longest 
time, where anatomically modern humans may also have arisen, and 
where native diseases like malaria and yellow fever killed European 
explorers. If a long head start counts for anything, why didn't guns and 


steel arise first in Africa, permitting Africans and their germs to conquer 
Europe? And what accounts for the failure of Aboriginal Australians to 
pass beyond the stage of hunter-gatherers with stone tools? 

Questions that emerge from worldwide comparisons of human societies 
formerly attracted much attention from historians and geographers. The 
best-known modern example of such an effort was Arnold Toynbee's 12- 
volume Study of History. Toynbee was especially interested in the internal 
dynamics of 23 advanced civilizations, of which 22 were literate and 19 
were Eurasian. He was less interested in prehistory and in simpler, nonlit-i 
erate societies. Yet the roots of inequality in the modern world lie far back 
in prehistory. Hence Toynbee did not pose Yali's question, nor did he come 
to grips with what I see as history's broadest pattern. Other available 
books on world history similarly tend to focus on advanced literate Eur- 
asian civilizations of the last 5,000 years; they have a very brief treatment 
of pre-Columbian Native American civilizations, and an even briefer dis- 
cussion of the rest of the world except for its recent interactions with Eur- 
asian civilizations. Since Toynbee's attempt, worldwide syntheses of 
historical causation have fallen into disfavor among most historians, as 
posing an apparently intractable problem. 

Specialists from several disciplines have provided global syntheses of 
their subjects. Especially useful contributions have been made by ecologi- 
cal geographers, cultural anthropologists, biologists studying plant and 
animal domestication, and scholars concerned with the impact of infec- 
tious diseases on history. These studies have called attention to parts of 
the puzzle, but they provide only pieces of the needed broad synthesis that 
has been missing. 

Thus, there is no generally accepted answer to Yali's question. On the 
one hand, the proximate explanations are clear: some peoples developed 
guns, germs, steel, and other factors conferring political and economic 
power before others did; and some peoples never developed these power 
factors at all. On the other hand, the ultimate explanations — for example, 
why bronze tools appeared early in parts of Eurasia, late and only locally 
in the New World, and never in Aboriginal Australia — remain unclear. 

Our present lack of such ultimate explanations leaves a big intellectual 
gap, since the broadest pattern of history thus remains unexplained. Much 
more serious, though, is the moral gap left unfilled. It is perfectly obvious 
to everyone, whether an overt racist or not, that different peoples have 
fared differently in history. The modern United States is a European- 



molded society, occupying lands conquered from Native Americans and 
incorporating the descendants of millions of sub-Saharan black Africans 
brought to America as slaves. Modern Europe is not a society molded by 
sub-Saharan black Africans who brought millions of Native Americans as 

These results are completely lopsided: it was not the case that 51 per- 
cent of the Americas, Australia, and Africa was conquered by Europeans, 
while 49 percent of Europe was conquered by Native Americans, Aborigi- 
nal Australians, or Africans. The whole modern world has been shaped by 
lopsided outcomes. Hence they must have inexorable explanations, ones 
more basic than mere details concerning who happened to win some battle 
or develop some invention on one occasion a few thousand years ago. 

It seems logical to suppose that history's pattern reflects innate differ- 
ences among people themselves. Of course, we're taught that it's not polite 
to say so in public. We read of technical studies claiming to demonstrate 
inborn differences, and we also read rebuttals claiming that those studies 
suffer from technical flaws. We see in our daily lives that some of the con- 
quered peoples continue to form an underclass, centuries after the con- 
quests or slave imports took place. We're told that this too is to be 
attributed not to any biological shortcomings but to social disadvantages 
and limited opportunities. 

Nevertheless, we have to wonder. We keep seeing all those glaring, per- 
sistent differences in peoples' status. We're assured that the seemingly 
transparent biological explanation for the world's inequalities as of A.D. 
1500 is wrong, but we're not told what the correct explanation is. Until 
we have some convincing, detailed, agreed-upon explanation for the broad 
pattern of history, most people will continue to suspect that the racist bio- 
logical explanation is correct after all. That seems to me the strongest argu- 
ment for writing this book. 

AUTHORS ARE REGULARLY asked by journalists to summarize a long 
book in one sentence. For this book, here is such a sentence: "History 
followed different courses for different peoples because of differences 
among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among 
peoples themselves." 

Naturally, the notion that environmental geography and biogeography 
influenced societal development is an old idea. Nowadays, though, the 


view is not held in esteem by historians; it is considered wrong or simplis- 
tic, or it is caricatured as environmental determinism and dismissed, or 
else the whole subject of trying to understand worldwide differences is 
shelved as too difficult. Yet geography obviously has some effect on his- 
tory; the open question concerns how much effect, and whether geography 
can account for history's broad pattern. 

The time is now ripe for a fresh look at these questions, because of 
new information from scientific disciplines seemingly remote from human 
history. Those disciplines include, above all, genetics, molecular biology, 
and biogeography as applied to crops and their wild ancestors; the same 
disciplines plus behavioral ecology, as applied to domestic animals and 
their wild ancestors; molecular biology of human germs and related germs 
of animals; epidemiology of human diseases; human genetics; linguistics; 
archaeological studies on all continents and major islands; and studies of 
the histories of technology, writing, and political organization. 

This diversity of disciplines poses problems for would-be authors of a 
book aimed at answering Yali's question. The author must possess a range 
of expertise spanning the above disciplines, so that relevant advances can 
be synthesized. The history and prehistory of each continent must be simi- 
larly synthesized. The books subject matter is history, but the approach is 
that of science — in particular, that of historical sciences such as evolution- 
ary biology and geology. The author must understand from firsthand expe- 
rience a range of human societies, from hunter-gatherer societies to 
modern space-age civilizations. 

These requirements seem at first to demand a multi-author work. Yet 
that approach would be doomed from the outset, because the essence of 
the problem is to develop a unified synthesis. That consideration dictates 
single authorship, despite all the difficulties that it poses. Inevitably, that 
single author will have to sweat copiously in order to assimilate material 
from many disciplines, and will require guidance from many colleagues. 

My background had led me to several of these disciplines even before 
Yali put his question to me in 1972. My mother is a teacher and linguist; 
my father, a physician specializing in the genetics of childhood diseases. 
Because of my father's example, I went through school expecting to 
become a physician. I had also become a fanatical bird-watcher by the age 
of seven. It was thus an easy step, in my last undergraduate year at univer- 
sity, to shift from my initial goal of medicine to the goal of biological 



research. However, throughout my school and undergraduate years, my 
training was mainly in languages, history, and writing. Even after deciding 
to obtain a Ph.D. in physiology, I nearly dropped out of science during my 
first year of graduate school to become a linguist. 

Since completing my Ph.D. in 1961, I have divided my scientific 
research efforts between two fields: molecular physiology on the one hand, 
evolutionary biology and biogeography on the other hand. As an unfore- 
seen bonus for the purposes of this book, evolutionary biology is a histori- 
cal science forced to use methods different from those of the laboratory 
sciences. That experience has made the difficulties in devising a scientific 
approach to human history familiar to me. Living in Europe from 1958 to 
1962, among European friends whose lives had been brutally traumatized 
by 20th-century European history, made me start to think more seriously 
about how chains of causes operate in history's unfolding. 

For the last 33 years my fieldwork as an evolutionary biologist has 
brought me into close contact with a wide range of human societies. My 
specialty is bird evolution, which I have studied in South America, south- 
ern Africa, Indonesia, Australia, and especially New Guinea. Through liv- 
ing with native peoples of these areas, I have become familiar with many 
technologically primitive human societies, from those of hunter-gatherers 
to those of tribal farmers and fishing peoples who depended until recently 
on stone tools. Thus, what most literate people would consider strange 
lifestyles of remote prehistory are for me the most vivid part of my life. 
New Guinea, though it accounts for only a small fraction of the world's 
land area, encompasses a disproportionate fraction of its human diversity. 
Of the modern world's 6,000 languages, 1,000 are confined to New 
Guinea. In the course of my work on New Guinea birds, my interests in 
language were rekindled, by the need to elicit lists of local names of bird 
species in nearly 100 of those New Guinea languages. 

Out of all those interests grew my most recent book, a nontechnical 
account of human evolution entitled The Third Chimpanzee. Its Chapter 
14, called "Accidental Conquerors," sought to understand the outcome 
of the encounter between Europeans and Native Americans. After I had 
completed that book, I realized that other modern, as well as prehistoric, 
encounters between peoples raised similar questions. I saw that the ques- 
tion with which I had wrestled in that Chapter 14 was in essence the ques- 
tion Yali had asked me in 1972, merely transferred to a different part of 


the world. And so at last, with the help of many friends, I shall attempt to 
satisfy Yali's curiosity — and my own. 

THIS BOOK'S CHAPTERS are divided into four parts. Part 1, entitled 
"From Eden to Cajamarca," consists of three chapters. Chapter 1 provides 
a whirlwind tour of human evolution and history, extending from our 
divergence from apes, around 7 million years ago, until the end of the last 
Ice Age, around 13,000 years ago. We shall trace the spread of ancestral 
humans, from our origins in Africa to the other continents, in order to 
understand the state of the world just before the events often lumped into 
the term "rise of civilization" began. It turns out that human development 
on some continents got a head start in time over developments on others. 

Chapter 2 prepares us for exploring effects of continental environments 
on history over the past 13,000 years, by briefly examining effects of island 
environments on history over smaller time scales and areas. When ances- 
tral Polynesians spread into the Pacific around 3,200 years ago, they 
encountered islands differing greatly in their environments. Within a few 
millennia that single ancestral Polynesian society had spawned on those 
diverse islands a range of diverse daughter societies, from hunter-gatherer 
tribes to proto-empires. That radiation can serve as a model for the longer, 
larger-scale, and less understood radiation of societies on different conti- 
nents since the end of the last Ice Age, to become variously hunter-gatherer 
tribes and empires. 

The third chapter introduces us to collisions between peoples from dif- 
ferent continents, by retelling through contemporary eyewitness accounts 
the most dramatic such encounter in history: the capture of the last inde- 
pendent Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, in the presence of his whole army, by 
Francisco Pizarro and his tiny band of conquistadores, at the Peruvian city 
of Cajamarca. We can identify the chain of proximate factors that enabled 
Pizarro to capture Atahuallpa, and that operated in European conquests 
of other Native American societies as well. Those factors included Spanish 
germs, horses, literacy, political organization, and technology (especially 
ships and weapons). That analysis of proximate causes is the easy part of 
this book; the hard part is to identify the ultimate causes leading to them 
and to the actual outcome, rather than to the opposite possible outcome 
of Atahuallpa's coming to Madrid and capturing King Charles I of Spain. 

Part 2, entitled "The Rise and Spread of Food Production" and con- 


2 9 

sisting of Chapters 4-10, is devoted to what I believe to be the most 
important constellation of ultimate causes. Chapter 4 sketches how food 
production — that is, the growing of food by agriculture or herding, instead 
of the hunting and gathering of wild foods — ultimately led to the immedi- 
ate factors permitting Pizarro's triumph. But the rise of food production 
varied around the globe. As we shall see in Chapter 5, peoples in some 
parts of the world developed food production by themselves; some other 
peoples acquired it in prehistoric times from those independent centers; 
and still others neither developed nor acquired food production prehistori-i 
cally but remained hunter-gatherers until modern times. Chapter 6 
explores the numerous factors driving the shift from the hunter-gatherer 
lifestyle toward food production, in some areas but not in others. 

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 then show how crops and livestock came in prehis- 
toric times to be domesticated from ancestral wild plants and animals, by 
incipient farmers and herders who could have had no vision of the out- 
come. Geographic differences in the local suites of wild plants and animals 
available for domestication go a long way toward explaining why only a 
few areas became independent centers of food production, and why it 
arose earlier in some of those areas than in others. From those few centers 
of origin, food production spread much more rapidly to some areas than 
to others. A major factor contributing to those differing rates of spread 
turns out to have been the orientation of the continents' axes: predomi- 
nantly west-east for Eurasia, predominantly north-south for the Americas 
and Africa (Chapter 10). 

Thus, Chapter 3 sketched the immediate factors behind Europe's con- 
quest of Native Americans, and Chapter 4 the development of those fac- 
tors from the ultimate cause of food production. In Part 3 ("From Food 
to Guns, Germs, and Steel," Chapters 11-14), the connections from ulti- 
mate to proximate causes are traced in detail, beginning with the evolution 
of germs characteristic of dense human populations (Chapter 11). Far 
more Native Americans and other non-Eurasian peoples were killed by 
Eurasian germs than by Eurasian guns or steel weapons. Conversely, few 
or no distinctive lethal germs awaited would-be European conquerors in 
the New World. Why was the germ exchange so unequal? Here, the results 
of recent molecular biological studies are illuminating in linking germs to 
the rise of food production, in Eurasia much more than in the Americas. 

Another chain of causation led from food production to writing, possi- 
bly the most important single invention of the last few thousand years 


(Chapter 12). Writing has evolved de novo only a few times in human 
history, in areas that had been the earliest sites of the rise of food produc- 
tion in their respective regions. All other societies that have become literate 
did so by the diffusion of writing systems or of the idea of writing from 
one of those few primary centers. Hence, for the student of world history, 
the phenomenon of writing is particularly useful for exploring another 
important constellation of causes: geography's effect on the ease with 
which ideas and inventions spread. 

What holds for writing also holds for technology (Chapter 13). A cru- 
cial question is whether technological innovation is so dependent on rare 
inventor-geniuses, and on many idiosyncratic cultural factors, as to defy 
an understanding of world patterns. In fact, we shall see that, paradoxi- 
cally, this large number of cultural factors makes it easier, not harder, to 
understand world patterns of technology. By enabling farmers to generate 
food surpluses, food production permitted farming societies to support 
full-time craft specialists who did not grow their own food and who devel- 
oped technologies. 

Besides sustaining scribes and inventors, food production also enabled 
farmers to support politicians (Chapter 14). Mobile bands of hunter-gath- 
erers are relatively egalitarian, and their political sphere is confined to the 
band's own territory and to shifting alliances with neighboring bands. 
With the rise of dense, sedentary, food-producing populations came the 
rise of chiefs, kings, and bureaucrats. Such bureaucracies were essential 
not only to governing large and populous domains but also to maintaining 
standing armies, sending out fleets of exploration, and organizing wars of 

Part 4 ("Around the World in Five Chapters," Chapters 15-19) applies 
the lessons of Parts 2 and 3 to each of the continents and some important 
islands. Chapter 15 examines the history of Australia itself, and of the 
large island of New Guinea, formerly joined to Australia in a single conti- 
nent. The case of Australia, home to the recent human societies with the 
simplest technologies, and the sole continent where food production did 
not develop indigenously, poses a critical test of theories about interconti- 
nental differences in human societies. We shall see why Aboriginal Austra- 
lians remained hunter-gatherers, even while most peoples of neighboring 
New Guinea became food producers. 

Chapters 16 and 17 integrate developments in Australia and New 
Guinea into the perspective of the whole region encompassing the East 


Asian mainland and Pacific islands. The rise of food production in China 
spawned several great prehistoric movements of human populations, or of 
cultural traits, or of both. One of those movements, within China itself, 
created the political and cultural phenomenon of China as we know it 
today. Another resulted in a replacement, throughout almost the whole 
of tropical Southeast Asia, of indigenous hunter-gatherers by farmers of 
ultimately South Chinese origin. Still another, the Austronesian expansion, 
similarly replaced the indigenous hunter-gatherers of the Philippines and 
Indonesia and spread out to the most remote islands of Polynesia, but was 
unable to colonize Australia and most of New Guinea. To the student of 
world history, all those collisions among East Asian and Pacific peoples 
are doubly important: they formed the countries where one-third of the 
modern world's population lives, and in which economic power is increas- 
ingly becoming concentrated; and they furnish especially clear models for 
understanding the histories of peoples elsewhere in the world. 

Chapter 18 returns to the problem introduced in Chapter 3, the colli- 
sion between European and Native American peoples. A summary of the 
last 13,000 years of New World and western Eurasian history makes clear 
how Europe's conquest of the Americas was merely the culmination of two 
long and mostly separate historical trajectories. The differences between 
those trajectories were stamped by continental differences in domesticable 
plants and animals, germs, times of settlement, orientation of continental 
axes, and ecological barriers. 

Finally, the history of sub-Saharan Africa (Chapter 19) offers striking 
similarities as well as contrasts with New World history. The same factors 
that molded Europeans' encounters with Africans molded their encounters 
with Native Americans as well. But Africa also differed from the Americas 
in all these factors. As a result, European conquest did not create wide- 
spread or lasting European settlement of sub-Saharan Africa, except in the 
far south. Of more lasting significance was a large-scale population shift 
within Africa itself, the Bantu expansion. It proves to have been triggered 
by many of the same causes that played themselves out at Cajamarca, in 
East Asia, on Pacific islands, and in Australia and New Guinea. 

I harbor no illusions that these chapters have succeeded in explaining 
the histories of all the continents for the past 13,000 years. Obviously, that 
would be impossible to accomplish in a single book even if we did under- 
stand all the answers, which we don't. At best, this book identifies several 
constellations of environmental factors that I believe provide a large part 


of the answer to Yali's question. Recognition of those factors emphasizes 
the unexplained residue, whose understanding will be a task for the future. 

The Epilogue, entitled "The Future of Human History as a Science," 
lays out some pieces of the residue, including the problem of the differ- 
ences between different parts of Eurasia, the role of cultural factors unre- 
lated to environment, and the role of individuals. Perhaps the biggest of 
these unsolved problems is to establish human history as a historical sci- 
ence, on a par with recognized historical sciences such as evolutionary 
biology, geology, and climatology. The study of human history does pose 
real difficulties, but those recognized historical sciences encounter some of 
the same challenges. Hence the methods developed in some of these other 
fields may also prove useful in the field of human history. 

Already, though, I hope to have convinced you, the reader, that history 
is not "just one damn fact after another," as a cynic put it. There really 
are broad patterns to history, and the search for their explanation is as 
productive as it is fascinating. 




, historical developments on the different continents is around 
11,000 B.C.* This date corresponds approximately to the beginnings of 
village life in a few parts of the world, the first undisputed peopling of the 
Americas, the end of the Pleistocene Era and last Ice Age, and the start of 
what geologists term the Recent Era. Plant and animal domestication 
began in at least one part of the world within a few thousand years of that 
date. As of then, did the people of some continents already have a head 
start or a clear advantage over peoples of other continents? 

If so, perhaps that head start, amplified over the last 13,000 years, pro- 

*Throughout this book, dates for about the last 15,000 years will be quoted as so- 
called calibrated radiocarbon dates, rather than as conventional, uncalibrated radiocar- 
bon dates. The difference between the two types of dates will be explained in Chapter 
5. Calibrated dates are the ones believed to correspond more closely to actual calendar 
dates. Readers accustomed to uncalibrated dates will need to bear this distinction in 
mind whenever they find me quoting apparently erroneous dates that are older than the 
ones with which they are familiar. For example, the date of the Clovis archaeological 
horizon in North America is usually quoted as around 9000 B.C. (11,000 years ago), 
but I quote it instead as around 1 1 ,000 B.C. ( 1 3,000 years ago), because the date usually 
quoted is uncalibrated. 

3 6 


vides the answer to Yali's question. Hence this chapter will offer a whirl- 
wind tour of human history on all the continents, for millions of years, 
from our origins as a species until 13,000 years ago. All that will now be 
summarized in less than 20 pages. Naturally, I shall gloss over details and 
mention only what seem to me the trends most relevant to this book. 

Our closest living relatives are three surviving species of great ape: the 
gorilla, the common chimpanzee, and the pygmy chimpanzee (also known 
as bonobo). Their confinement to Africa, along with abundant fossil evi- 
dence, indicates that the earliest stages of human evolution were also 
played out in Africa. Human history, as something separate from the his- 
tory of animals, began there about 7 million years ago (estimates range 
from 5 to 9 million years ago). Around that time, a population of African 
apes broke up into several populations, of which one proceeded to evolve 
into modern gorillas, a second into the two modern chimps, and the third 
into humans. The gorilla line apparently split off slightly before the split 
between the chimp and the human lines. 

Fossils indicate that the evolutionary line leading to us had achieved a 
substantially upright posture by around 4 million years ago, then began to 
increase in body size and in relative brain size around 2.5 million years 
ago. Those protohumans are generally known as Australopithecus afri~> 
canus, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus, which apparently evolved into 
each other in that sequence. Although Homo erectus, the stage reached 
around 1.7 million years ago, was close to us modern humans in body 
size, its brain size was still barely half of ours. Stone tools became common 
around 2.5 million years ago, but they were merely the crudest of flaked 
or battered stones. In zoological significance and distinctiveness, Homo 
erectus was more than an ape, but still much less than a modern human. 

All of that human history, for the first 5 or 6 million years after our 
origins about 7 million years ago, remained confined to Africa. The first 
human ancestor to spread beyond Africa was Homo erectus, as is attested 
by fossils discovered on the Southeast Asian island of Java and convention- 
ally known as Java man (see Figure 1.1). The oldest Java "man" fossils — 
of course, they may actually have belonged to a Java woman — have usu- 
ally been assumed to date from about a million years ago. However, it has 
recently been argued that they actually date from 1.8 million years ago. 
(Strictly speaking, the name Homo erectus belongs to these Javan fossils, 
and the African fossils classified as Homo erectus may warrant a different 
name.) At present, the earliest unquestioned evidence for humans in 


Europe stems from around half a million years ago, but there are claims 
of an earlier presence. One would certainly assume that the colonization 
of Asia also permitted the simultaneous colonization of Europe, since 
Eurasia is a single landmass not bisected by major barriers. 

That illustrates an issue that will recur throughout this book. Whenever 
some scientist claims to have discovered "the earliest X" — whether X is 
the earliest human fossil in Europe, the earliest evidence of domesticated 
corn in Mexico, or the earliest anything anywhere — that announcement 
challenges other scientists to beat the claim by finding something still ear- 
lier. In reality, there must be some truly "earliest X," with all claims of 
earlier X's being false. However, as we shall see, for virtually any X, every 
year brings forth new discoveries and claims of a purported still earlier X, 
along with refutations of some or all of previous years' claims of earlier 
X. It often takes decades of searching before archaeologists reach a con- 
sensus on such questions. 

By about half a million years ago, human fossils had diverged from 
older Homo erectus skeletons in their enlarged, rounder, and less angular 
skulls. African and European skulls of half a million years ago were suffi- 
ciently similar to skulls of us moderns that they are classified in our spe- 
cies, Homo sapiens, instead of in Homo erectus. This distinction is 


arbitrary, since Homo erectus evolved into Homo sapiens. However, these 
early Homo sapiens still differed from us in skeletal details, had brains 
significantly smaller than ours, and were grossly different from us in their 
artifacts and behavior. Modern stone-tool-making peoples, such as Yak's 
great-grandparents, would have scorned the stone tools of half a million 
years ago as very crude. The only other significant addition to our ances- 
tors' cultural repertoire that can be documented with confidence around 
that time was the use of fire. 

No art, bone tool, or anything else has come down to us from early 
Homo sapiens except for their skeletal remains, plus those crude stone 
tools. There were still no humans in Australia, for the obvious reason that 
it would have taken boats to get there from Southeast Asia. There were 
also no humans anywhere in the Americas, because that would have 
required the occupation of the nearest part of the Eurasian continent (Sibe- 
ria), and possibly boat-building skills as well. (The present, shallow Bering 
Strait, separating Siberia from Alaska, alternated between a strait and a 
broad intercontinental bridge of dry land, as sea level repeatedly rose and 
fell during the Ice Ages.) However, boat building and survival in cold Sibe- 
ria were both still far beyond the capabilities of early Homo sapiens. 

After half a million years ago, the human populations of Africa and 
western Eurasia proceeded to diverge from each other and from East Asian 
populations in skeletal details. The population of Europe and western Asia 
between 130,000 and 40,000 years ago is represented by especially many 
skeletons, known as Neanderthals and sometimes classified as a separate 
species, Homo neanderthalensis. Despite being depicted in innumerable 
cartoons as apelike brutes living in caves, Neanderthals had brains slightly 
larger than our own. They were also the first humans to leave behind 
strong evidence of burying their dead and caring for their sick. Yet their 
stone tools were still crude by comparison with modern New Guineans' 
polished stone axes and were usually not yet made in standardized diverse 
shapes, each with a clearly recognizable function. 

The few preserved African skeletal fragments contemporary with the 
Neanderthals are more similar to our modern skeletons than to Neander- 
thal skeletons. Even fewer preserved East Asian skeletal fragments are 
known, but they appear different again from both Africans and Neander- 
thals. As for the lifestyle at that time, the best-preserved evidence comes 
from stone artifacts and prey bones accumulated at southern African sites. 
Although those Africans of 100,000 years ago had more modern skeletons 


than did their Neanderthal contemporaries, they made essentially the same 
crude stone tools as Neanderthals, still lacking standardized shapes. They 
had no preserved art. To judge from the bone evidence of the animal spe- 
cies on which they preyed, their hunting skills were unimpressive and 
mainly directed at easy-to-kill, not-at-all-dangerous animals. They were 
not yet in the business of slaughtering buffalo, pigs, and other dangerous 
prey. They couldn't even catch fish: their sites immediately on the seacoast 
lack fish bones and fishhooks. They and their Neanderthal contemporaries 
still rank as less than fully human. 

Human history at last took off around 50,000 years ago, at the time of 
what I have termed our Great Leap Forward. The earliest definite signs of 
that leap come from East African sites with standardized stone tools and 
the first preserved jewelry (ostrich-shell beads). Similar developments soon 
appear in the Near East and in southeastern Europe, then (some 40,000 
years ago) in southwestern Europe, where abundant artifacts are associ- 
ated with fully modern skeletons of people termed Cro-Magnons. Thereaf- 
ter, the garbage preserved at archaeological sites rapidly becomes more 
and more interesting and leaves no doubt that we are dealing with biologi- 
cally and behaviorally modern humans. 

Cro-Magnon garbage heaps yield not only stone tools but also tools 
of bone, whose suitability for shaping (for instance, into fishhooks) had 
apparently gone unrecognized by previous humans. Tools were produced 
in diverse and distinctive shapes so modern that their functions as needles, 
awls, engraving tools, and so on are obvious to us. Instead of only single- 
piece tools such as hand-held scrapers, multipiece tools made their appear- 
ance. Recognizable multipiece weapons at Cro-Magnon sites include har- 
poons, spear-throwers, and eventually bows and arrows, the precursors of 
rifles and other multipiece modern weapons. Those efficient means of kill- 
ing at a safe distance permitted the hunting of such dangerous prey as 
rhinos and elephants, while the invention of rope for nets, lines, and snares 
allowed the addition of fish and birds to our diet. Remains of houses and 
sewn clothing testify to a greatly improved ability to survive in cold cli- 
mates, and remains of jewelry and carefully buried skeletons indicate revo- 
lutionary aesthetic and spiritual developments. 

Of the Cro-Magnons' products that have been preserved, the best 
known are their artworks: their magnificent cave paintings, statues, and 
musical instruments, which we still appreciate as art today. Anyone who 
has experienced firsthand the overwhelming power of the life-sized painted 


bulls and horses in the Lascaux Cave of southwestern France will under- 
stand at once that their creators must have been as modern in their minds 
as they were in their skeletons. 

Obviously, some momentous change took place in our ancestors' capa- 
bilities between about 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. That Great Leap 
Forward poses two major unresolved questions, regarding its triggering 
cause and its geographic location. As for its cause, I argued in my book 
The Third Chimpanzee for the perfection of the voice box and hence for 
the anatomical basis of modern language, on which the exercise of human 
creativity is so dependent. Others have suggested instead that a change in 
brain organization around that time, without a change in brain size, made 
modern language possible. 

As for the site of the Great Leap Forward, did it take place primarily in 
one geographic area, in one group of humans, who were thereby enabled 
to expand and replace the former human populations of other parts of the 
world? Or did it occur in parallel in different regions, in each of which 
the human populations living there today would be descendants of the 
populations living there before the leap? The rather modern-looking 
human skulls from Africa around 100,000 years ago have been taken to 
support the former view, with the leap occurring specifically in Africa. 
Molecular studies (of so-called mitochondrial DNA) were initially also 
interpreted in terms of an African origin of modern humans, though the 
meaning of those molecular findings is currently in doubt. On the other 
hand, skulls of humans living in China and Indonesia hundreds of thou- 
sands of years ago are considered by some physical anthropologists to 
exhibit features still found in modern Chinese and in Aboriginal Austra- 
lians, respectively. If true, that finding would suggest parallel evolution 
and multiregional origins of modern humans, rather than origins in a sin- 
gle Garden of Eden. The issue remains unresolved. 

The evidence for a localized origin of modern humans, followed by their 
spread and then their replacement of other types of humans elsewhere, 
seems strongest for Europe. Some 40,000 years ago, into Europe came the 
Cro-Magnons, with their modern skeletons, superior weapons, and other 
advanced cultural traits. Within a few thousand years there were no more 
Neanderthals, who had been evolving as the sole occupants of Europe for 
hundreds of thousands of years. That sequence strongly suggests that the 
modern Cro-Magnons somehow used their far superior technology, and 
their language skills or brains, to infect, kill, or displace the Neanderthals, 


leaving behind little or no evidence of hybridization between Neanderthals 
and Cro-Magnons. 

THE GREAT LEAP Forward coincides with the first proven major exten- 
sion of human geographic range since our ancestors' colonization of 
Eurasia. That extension consisted of the occupation of Australia and New 
Guinea, joined at that time into a single continent. Many radiocarbon- 
dated sites attest to human presence in Australia /New Guinea between 
40,000 and 30,000 years ago (plus the inevitable somewhat older claims 
of contested validity). Within a short time of that initial peopling, humans 
had expanded over the whole continent and adapted to its diverse habitats, 
from the tropical rain forests and high mountains of New Guinea to the 
dry interior and wet southeastern corner of Australia. 

During the Ice Ages, so much of the oceans' water was locked up in 
glaciers that worldwide sea levels dropped hundreds of feet below their 
present stand. As a result, what are now the shallow seas between Asia 
and the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Borneo, Java, and Bali became dry 
land. (So did other shallow straits, such as the Bering Strait and the English 
Channel.) The edge of the Southeast Asian mainland then lay 700 miles 
east of its present location. Nevertheless, central Indonesian islands 
between Bali and Australia remained surrounded and separated by deep- 
water channels. To reach Australia / New Guinea from the Asian mainland 
at that time still required crossing a minimum of eight channels, the broad- 
est of which was at least 50 miles wide. Most of those channels divided 
islands visible from each other, but Australia itself was always invisible 
from even the nearest Indonesian islands, Timor and Tanimbar. Thus, the 
occupation of Australia / New Guinea is momentous in that it demanded 
watercraft and provides by far the earliest evidence of their use in history. 
Not until about 30,000 years later (13,000 years ago) is there strong evi- 
dence of watercraft anywhere else in the world, from the Mediterranean. 

Initially, archaeologists considered the possibility that the colonization 
of Australia /New Guinea was achieved accidentally by just a few people 
swept to sea while fishing on a raft near an Indonesian island. In an 
extreme scenario the first settlers are pictured as having consisted of a 
single pregnant young woman carrying a male fetus. But believers in the 
fluke-colonization theory have been surprised by recent discoveries that 
still other islands, lying to the east of New Guinea, were colonized soon 



after New Guinea itself, by around 35,000 years ago. Those islands were 
New Britain and New Ireland, in the Bismarck Archipelago, and Buka, in 
the Solomon Archipelago. Buka lies out of sight of the closest island to the 
west and could have been reached only by crossing a water gap of about 
100 miles. Thus, early Australians and New Guineans were probably 
capable of intentionally traveling over water to visible islands, and were 
using watercraft sufficiently often that the colonization of even invisible 
distant islands was repeatedly achieved unintentionally. 

The settlement of Australia / New Guinea was perhaps associated with 
still another big first, besides humans' first use of watercraft and first range 
extension since reaching Eurasia: the first mass extermination of large ani- 
mal species by humans. Today, we regard Africa as the continent of big 
mammals. Modern Eurasia also has many species of big mammals (though 
not in the manifest abundance of Africa's Serengeti Plains), such as Asia's 
rhinos and elephants and tigers, and Europe's moose and bears and (until 
classical times) lions. Australia /New Guinea today has no equally large 
mammals, in fact no mammal larger than 100-pound kangaroos. But Aus- 
tralia/New Guinea formerly had its own suite of diverse big mammals, 
including giant kangaroos, rhinolike marsupials called diprotodonts and 
reaching the size of a cow, and a marsupial "leopard." It also formerly had 
a 400-pound ostrichlike flightless bird, plus some impressively big reptiles, 
including a one-ton lizard, a giant python, and land-dwelling crocodiles. 

All of those Australian / New Guinean giants (the so-called megafauna) 
disappeared after the arrival of humans. While there has been controversy 
about the exact timing of their demise, several Australian archaeological 
sites, with dates extending over tens of thousands of years, and with prodi- 
giously abundant deposits of animal bones, have been carefully excavated 
and found to contain not a trace of the now extinct giants over the last 
35,000 years. Hence the megafauna probably became extinct soon after 
humans reached Australia. 

The near-simultaneous disappearance of so many large species raises an 
obvious question: what caused it? An obvious possible answer is that they 
were killed off or else eliminated indirectly by the first arriving humans. 
Recall that Australian / New Guinean animals had evolved for millions of 
years in the absence of human hunters. We know that Galapagos and Ant- 
arctic birds and mammals, which similarly evolved in the absence of 
humans and did not see humans until modern times, are still incurably 
tame today. They would have been exterminated if conservationists had 


not imposed protective measures quickly. On other recently discovered 
islands where protective measures did not go into effect quickly, extermi- 
nations did indeed result: one such victim, the dodo of Mauritius, has 
become virtually a symbol for extinction. We also know now that, on 
every one of the well-studied oceanic islands colonized in the prehistoric 
era, human colonization led to an extinction spasm whose victims 
included the moas of New Zealand, the giant lemurs of Madagascar, and 
the big flightless geese of Hawaii. Just as modern humans walked up to 
unafraid dodos and island seals and killed them, prehistoric humans pre- 
sumably walked up to unafraid moas and giant lemurs and killed them 

Hence one hypothesis for the demise of Australia's and New Guinea's 
giants is that they met the same fate around 40,000 years ago. In contrast, 
most big mammals of Africa and Eurasia survived into modern times, 
because they had coevolved with protohumans for hundreds of thousands 
or millions of years. They thereby enjoyed ample time to evolve a fear of 
humans, as our ancestors' initially poor hunting skills slowly improved. 
The dodo, moas, and perhaps the giants of Australia /New Guinea had 
the misfortune suddenly to be confronted, without any evolutionary prep- 
aration, by invading modern humans possessing fully developed hunting 

However, the overkill hypothesis, as it is termed, has not gone unchal- 
lenged for Australia /New Guinea. Critics emphasize that, as yet, no one 
has documented the bones of an extinct Australian / New Guinean giant 
with compelling evidence of its having been killed by humans, or even 
of its having lived in association with humans. Defenders of the overkill 
hypothesis reply: you would hardly expect to find kill sites if the extermi- 
nation was completed very quickly and long ago, such as within a few 
millennia some 40,000 years ago. The critics respond with a counterthe-> 
ory: perhaps the giants succumbed instead to a change in climate, such as 
a severe drought on the already chronically dry Australian continent. The 
debate goes on. 

Personally, I can't fathom why Australia's giants should have survived 
innumerable droughts in their tens of millions of years of Australian his- 
tory, and then have chosen to drop dead almost simultaneously (at least 
on a time scale of millions of years) precisely and just coincidentally when 
the first humans arrived. The giants became extinct not only in dry central 
Australia but also in drenching wet New Guinea and southeastern Austra- 


lia. They became extinct in every habitat without exception, from deserts 
to cold rain forest and tropical rain forest. Hence it seems to me most 
likely that the giants were indeed exterminated by humans, both directly 
(by being killed for food) and indirectly (as the result of fires and habitat 
modification caused by humans). But regardless of whether the overkill 
hypothesis or the climate hypothesis proves correct, the disappearance of 
all of the big animals of Australia / New Guinea had, as we shall see, heavy 
consequences for subsequent human history. Those extinctions eliminated 
all the large wild animals that might otherwise have been candidates for 
domestication, and left native Australians and New Guineans with not a 
single native domestic animal. 

THUS, THE COLONIZATION of Australia/New Guinea was not 
achieved until around the time of the Great Leap Forward. Another exten- 
sion of human range that soon followed was the one into the coldest parts 
of Eurasia. While Neanderthals lived in glacial times and were adapted to 
the cold, they penetrated no farther north than northern Germany and 
Kiev. That's not surprising, since Neanderthals apparently lacked needles, 
sewn clothing, warm houses, and other technology essential to survival in 
the coldest climates. Anatomically modern peoples who did possess such 
technology had expanded into Siberia by around 20,000 years ago (there 
are the usual much older disputed claims). That expansion may have been 
responsible for the extinction of Eurasia's woolly mammoth and woolly 

With the settlement of Australia / New Guinea, humans now occupied 
three of the five habitable continents. (Throughout this book, I count 
Eurasia as a single continent, and I omit Antarctica because it was not 
reached by humans until the 19th century and has never had any self- 
supporting human population.) That left only two continents, North 
America and South America. They were surely the last ones settled, for the 
obvious reason that reaching the Americas from the Old World required 
either boats (for which there is no evidence even in Indonesia until 40,000 
years ago and none in Europe until much later) in order to cross by sea, or 
else it required the occupation of Siberia (unoccupied until about 20,000 
years ago) in order to cross the Bering land bridge. 

However, it is uncertain when, between about 14,000 and 35,000 years 


ago, the Americas were first colonized. The oldest unquestioned human 
remains in the Americas are at sites in Alaska dated around 12,000 B.C., 
followed by a profusion of sites in the United States south of the Canadian 
border and in Mexico in the centuries just before 11,000 B.C. The latter 
sites are called Clovis sites, named after the type site near the town of 
Clovis, New Mexico, where their characteristic large stone spearpoints 
were first recognized. Hundreds of Clovis sites are now known, blanketing 
all 48 of the lower U.S. states south into Mexico. Unquestioned evidence 
of human presence appears soon thereafter in Amazonia and in Patagonia. 
These facts suggest the interpretation that Clovis sites document the Amer- 
icas' first colonization by people, who quickly multiplied, expanded, and 
filled the two continents. 

One might at first be surprised that Clovis descendants could reach 
Patagonia, lying 8,000 miles south of the U.S. -Canada border, in less than 
a thousand years. However, that translates into an average expansion of 
only 8 miles per year, a trivial feat for a hunter-gatherer likely to cover 
that distance even within a single day's normal foraging. 

One might also at first be surprised that the Americas evidently filled 
up with humans so quickly that people were motivated to keep spreading 
south toward Patagonia. That population growth also proves unsurprising 
when one stops to consider the actual numbers. If the Americas eventually 
came to hold hunter-gatherers at an average population density of some- 
what under one person per square mile (a high value for modern hunter- 
gatherers), then the whole area of the Americas would eventually have 
held about 10 million hunter-gatherers. But even if the initial colonists had 
consisted of only 100 people and their numbers had increased at a rate of 
only 1.1 percent per year, the colonists' descendants would have reached 
that population ceiling of 10 million people within a thousand years. A 
population growth rate of 1.1 percent per year is again trivial: rates as 
high as 3.4 percent per year have been observed in modern times when 
people colonized virgin lands, such as when the HMS Bounty mutineers 
and their Tahitian wives colonized Pitcairn Island. 

The profusion of Clovis hunters' sites within the first few centuries after 
their arrival resembles the site profusion documented archaeologically for 
the more recent discovery of New Zealand by ancestral Maori. A profu- 
sion of early sites is also documented for the much older colonization of 
Europe by anatomically modern humans, and for the occupation of Aus- 


tralia / New Guinea. That is, everything about the Clovis phenomenon and 
its spread through the Americas corresponds to findings for other, unques- 
tioned virgin-land colonizations in history. 

What might be the significance of Clovis sites' bursting forth in the 
centuries just before 11,000 B.C., rather than in those before 16,000 or 
21,000 B.C.? Recall that Siberia has always been cold, and that a continu- 
ous ice sheet stretched as an impassable barrier across the whole width of 
Canada during much of the Pleistocene Ice Ages. We have already seen 
that the technology required for coping with extreme cold did not emerge 
until after anatomically modern humans invaded Europe around 40,000 
years ago, and that people did not colonize Siberia until 20,000 years later. 
Eventually, those early Siberians crossed to Alaska, either by sea across the 
Bering Strait (only 50 miles wide even today) or else on foot at glacial 
times when Bering Strait was dry land. The Bering land bridge, during its 
millennia of intermittent existence, would have been up to a thousand 
miles wide, covered by open tundra, and easily traversable by people 
adapted to cold conditions. The land bridge was flooded and became a 
strait again most recentiy when sea level rose after around 14,000 B.C. 
Whether those early Siberians walked or paddled to Alaska, the earliest 
secure evidence of human presence in Alaska dates from around 12,000 


Soon thereafter, a north-south ice-free corridor opened in the Canadian 
ice sheet, permitting the first Alaskans to pass through and come out into 
the Great Plains around the site of the modern Canadian city of Edmon- 
ton. That removed the last serious barrier between Alaska and Patagonia 
for modern humans. The Edmonton pioneers would have found the Great 
Plains teeming with game. They would have thrived, increased in numbers, 
and gradually spread south to occupy the whole hemisphere. 

One other feature of the Clovis phenomenon fits our expectations for 
the first human presence south of the Canadian ice sheet. Like Australia / 
New Guinea, the Americas had originally been full of big mammals. About 
15,000 years ago, the American West looked much as Africa's Serengeti 
Plains do today, with herds of elephants and horses pursued by lions and 
cheetahs, and joined by members of such exotic species as camels and giant 
ground sloths. Just as in Australia / New Guinea, in the Americas most of 
those large mammals became extinct. Whereas the extinctions took place 
probably before 30,000 years ago in Australia, they occurred around 
17,000 to 12,000 years ago in the Americas. For those extinct American 


mammals whose bones are available in greatest abundance and have been 
dated especially accurately, one can pinpoint the extinctions as having 
occurred around 11,000 B.C. Perhaps the two most accurately dated 
extinctions are those of the Shasta ground sloth and Harrington's moun- 
tain goat in the Grand Canyon area; both of those populations disap- 
peared within a century or two of 11,100 B.C. Whether coincidentally or 
not, that date is identical, within experimental error, to the date of Clovis 
hunters' arrival in the Grand Canyon area. 

The discovery of numerous skeletons of mammoths with Clovis spear- 
points between their ribs suggests that this agreement of dates is not a 
coincidence. Hunters expanding southward through the Americas, 
encountering big animals that had never seen humans before, may have 
found those American animals easy to kill and may have exterminated 
them. A countertheory is that America's big mammals instead became 
extinct because of climate changes at the end of the last Ice Age, which 
(to confuse the interpretation for modern paleontologists) also happened 
around 11,000 B.C. 

Personally, I have the same problem with a climatic theory of megafau-i 
nal extinction in the Americas as with such a theory in Australia / New 
Guinea. The Americas' big animals had already survived the ends of 22 
previous Ice Ages. Why did most of them pick the 23rd to expire in con- 
cert, in the presence of all those supposedly harmless humans? Why did 
they disappear in all habitats, not only in habitats that contracted but also 
in ones that greatly expanded at the end of the last Ice Age? Hence I sus- 
pect that Clovis hunters did it, but the debate remains unresolved. Which- 
ever theory proves correct, most large wild mammal species that might 
otherwise have later been domesticated by Native Americans were thereby 

Also unresolved is the question whether Clovis hunters really were the 
first Americans. As always happens whenever anyone claims the first any- 
thing, claims of discoveries of pre-Clovis human sites in the Americas are 
constantly being advanced. Every year, a few of those new claims really 
do appear convincing and exciting when initially announced. Then the 
inevitable problems of interpretation arise. Were the reported tools at the 
site really tools made by humans, or just natural rock shapes? Are the 
reported radiocarbon dates really correct, and not invalidated by any of 
the numerous difficulties that can plague radiocarbon dating? If the dates 
are correct, are they really associated with human products, rather than 


just being a 15,000-year-old lump of charcoal lying next to a stone tool 
actually made 9,000 years ago? 

To illustrate these problems, consider the following typical example of 
an often quoted pre-Clovis claim. At a Brazilian rock shelter named Pedro 
Furada, archaeologists found cave paintings undoubtedly made by 
humans. They also discovered, among the piles of stones at the base of a 
cliff, some stones whose shapes suggested the possibility of their being 
crude tools. In addition, they came upon supposed hearths, whose burnt 
charcoal yielded radiocarbon dates of around 35,000 years ago. Articles 
on Pedro Furada were accepted for publication in the prestigious and 
highly selective international scientific journal Nature. 

But none of those rocks at the base of the cliff is an obviously human- 
made tool, as are Clovis points and Cro-Magnon tools. If hundreds of 
thousands of rocks fall from a high cliff over the course of tens of thou- 
sands of years, many of them will become chipped and broken when they 
hit the rocks below, and some will come to resemble crude tools chipped 
and broken by humans. In western Europe and elsewhere in Amazonia, 
archaeologists have radiocarbon-dated the actual pigments used in cave 
paintings, but that was not done at Pedro Furada. Forest fires occur fre- 
quently in the vicinity and produce charcoal that is regularly swept into 
caves by wind and streams. No evidence links the 35,000-year-old char- 
coal to the undoubted cave paintings at Pedro Furada. Although the origi- 
nal excavators remain convinced, a team of archaeologists who were not 
involved in the excavation but receptive to pre-Clovis claims recently vis- 
ited the site and came away unconvinced. 

The North American site that currently enjoys the strongest credentials 
as a possible pre-Clovis site is Meadowcroft rock shelter, in Pennsylvania, 
yielding reported human-associated radiocarbon dates of about 16,000 
years ago. At Meadowcroft no archaeologist denies that many human arti- 
facts do occur in many carefully excavated layers. But the oldest radiocar- 
bon dates don't make sense, because the plant and animal species 
associated with them are species living in Pennsylvania in recent times of 
mild climates, rather than species expected for the glacial times of 16,000 
years ago. Hence one has to suspect that the charcoal samples dated from 
the oldest human occupation levels consist of post-Clovis charcoal infil- 
trated with older carbon. The strongest pre-Clovis candidate in South 
America is the Monte Verde site, in southern Chile, dated to at least 


15,000 years ago. It too now seems convincing to many archaeologists, 
but caution is warranted in view of all the previous disillusionments. 

If there really were pre-Clovis people in the Americas, why is it still so 
hard to prove that they existed? Archaeologists have excavated hundreds 
of American sites unequivocally dating to between 2000 and 11,000 B.C., 
including dozens of Clovis sites in the North American West, rock shelters 
in the Appalachians, and sites in coastal California. Below all the archaeo- 
logical layers with undoubted human presence, at many of those same 
sites, deeper older layers have been excavated and still yield undoubted 
remains of animals — but with no further evidence of humans. The weak- 
nesses in pre-Clovis evidence in the Americas contrast with the strength of 
the evidence in Europe, where hundreds of sites attest to the presence of 
modern humans long before Clovis hunters appeared in the Americas 
around 11,000 B.C. Even more striking is the evidence from Australia/ 
New Guinea, where there are barely one-tenth as many archaeologists as 
in the United States alone, but where those few archaeologists have never- 
theless discovered over a hundred unequivocal pre-Clovis sites scattered 
over the whole continent. 

Early humans certainly didn't fly by helicopter from Alaska to Mead-i 
owcroft and Monte Verde, skipping all the landscape in between. Advo- 
cates of pre-Clovis settlement suggest that, for thousands or even tens of 
thousands of years, pre-Clovis humans remained at low population densi- 
ties or poorly visible archaeologically, for unknown reasons unprecedented 
elsewhere in the world. I find that suggestion infinitely more implausible 
than the suggestion that Monte Verde and Meadowcroft will eventually 
be reinterpreted, as have other claimed pre-Clovis sites. My feeling is that, 
if there really had been pre-Clovis settlement in the Americas, it would 
have become obvious at many locations by now, and we would not still be 
arguing. However, archaeologists remain divided on these questions. 

The consequences for our understanding of later American prehistory 
remain the same, whichever interpretation proves correct. Either: the 
Americas were first settled around 11,000 B.C. and quickly filled up with 
people. Or else: the first settlement occurred somewhat earlier (most advo- 
cates of pre-Clovis settlement would suggest by 15,000 or 20,000 years 
ago, possibly 30,000 years ago, and few would seriously claim earlier); 
but those pre-Clovis settlers remained few in numbers, or inconspicuous, 
or had little impact, until around 11,000 B.C. In either case, of the five 



habitable continents, North America and South America are the ones with 
the shortest human prehistories. 

with the occupation of the Americas, most habitable areas of the 
continents and continental islands, plus oceanic islands from Indonesia to 
east of New Guinea, supported humans. The settlement of the world's 
remaining islands was not completed until modern times: Mediterranean 
islands such as Crete, Cyprus, Corsica, and Sardinia between about 8500 
and 4000 B.C.; Caribbean islands beginning around 4000 B.C.; Polynesian 
and Micronesian islands between 1200 B.C. and A.D. 1000; Madagascar 
sometime between A.D. 300 and 800; and Iceland in the ninth century A.D. 
Native Americans, possibly ancestral to the modern Inuit, spread through- 
out the High Arctic around 2000 B.C. That left, as the sole uninhabited 
areas awaiting European explorers over the last 700 years, only the most 
remote islands of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans (such as the Azores and 
Seychelles), plus Antarctica. 

What significance, if any, do the continents' differing dates of settlement 
have for subsequent history? Suppose that a time machine could have 
transported an archaeologist back in time, for a world tour at around 
1 1,000 B.C. Given the state of the world then, could the archaeologist have 
predicted the sequence in which human societies on the various continents 
would develop guns, germs, and steel, and thus predicted the state of the 
world today? 

Our archaeologist might have considered the possible advantages of a 
head start. If that counted for anything, then Africa enjoyed an enormous 
advantage: at least 5 million more years of separate protohuman existence 
than on any other continent. In addition, if it is true that modern humans 
arose in Africa around 100,000 years ago and spread to other continents, 
that would have wiped out any advantages accumulated elsewhere in the 
meantime and given Africans a new head start. Furthermore, human 
genetic diversity is highest in Africa; perhaps more-diverse humans would 
collectively produce more-diverse inventions. 

But our archaeologist might then reflect: what, really, does a "head 
start" mean for the purposes of this book? We cannot take the metaphor 
of a footrace literally. If by head start you mean the time required to popu- 
late a continent after the arrival of the first few pioneering colonists, that 
time is relatively brief: for example, less than 1,000 years to fill up even 


the whole New World. If by head start you instead mean the time required 
to adapt to local conditions, I grant that some extreme environments did 
take time: for instance, 9,000 years to occupy the High Arctic after the 
occupation of the rest of North America. But people would have explored 
and adapted to most other areas quickly, once modern human inventive- 
ness had developed. For example, after the ancestors of the Maori reached 
New Zealand, it apparently took them barely a century to discover all 
worthwhile stone sources; only a few more centuries to kill every last moa 
in some of the world's most rugged terrain; and only a few centuries to 
differentiate into a range of diverse societies, from that of coastal hunter- 
gatherers to that of farmers practicing new types of food storage. 

Our archaeologist might therefore look at the Americas and conclude 
that Africans, despite their apparently enormous head start, would have 
been overtaken by the earliest Americans within at most a millennium. 
Thereafter, the Americas' greater area (50 percent greater than Africa's) 
and much greater environmental diversity would have given the advantage 
to Native Americans over Africans. 

The archaeologist might then turn to Eurasia and reason as follows. 
Eurasia is the world's largest continent. It has been occupied for longer 
than any other continent except Africa. Africa's long occupation before 
the colonization of Eurasia a million years ago might have counted for 
nothing anyway, because protohumans were at such a primitive stage then. 
Our archaeologist might look at the Upper Paleolithic flowering of south- 
western Europe between 20,000 and 12,000 years ago, with all those 
famous artworks and complex tools, and wonder whether Eurasia was 
already getting a head start then, at least locally. 

Finally, the archaeologist would turn to Australia / New Guinea, noting 
first its small area (it's the smallest continent), the large fraction of it cov- 
ered by desert capable of supporting few humans, the continent's isolation, 
and its later occupation than that of Africa and Eurasia. All that might 
lead the archaeologist to predict slow development in Australia / New 

But remember that Australians and New Guineans had by far the earli- 
est watercraft in the world. They were creating cave paintings apparently 
at least as early as the Cro-Magnons in Europe. Jonathan Kingdon and 
Tim Flannery have noted that the colonization of Australia / New Guinea 
from the islands of the Asian continental shelf required humans to learn to 
deal with the new environments they encountered on the islands of central 


Indonesia — a maze of coastlines offering the richest marine resources, 
coral reefs, and mangroves in the world. As the colonists crossed the straits 
separating each Indonesian island from the next one to the east, they 
adapted anew, filled up that next island, and went on to colonize the next 
island again. It was a hitherto unprecedented golden age of successive 
human population explosions. Perhaps those cycles of colonization, adap- 
tation, and population explosion were what selected for the Great Leap 
Forward, which then diffused back westward to Eurasia and Africa. If this 
scenario is correct, then Australia / New Guinea gained a massive head 
start that might have continued to propel human development there long 
after the Great Leap Forward. 

Thus, an observer transported back in time to 11,000 B.C. could not 
have predicted on which continent human societies would develop most 
quickly, but could have made a strong case for any of the continents. With 
hindsight, of course, we know that Eurasia was the one. But it turns out 
that the actual reasons behind the more rapid development of Eurasian 
societies were not at all the straightforward ones that our imaginary 
archaeologist of 11,000 B.C. guessed. The remainder of this book consists 
of a quest to discover those real reasons. 



Zealand, centuries of independence came to a brutal end for the 
Moriori people in December 1835. On November 19 of that year, a ship 
carrying 500 Maori armed with guns, clubs, and axes arrived, followed on 
December 5 by a shipload of 400 more Maori. Groups of Maori began to 
walk through Moriori settlements, announcing that the Moriori were now 
their slaves, and killing those who objected. An organized resistance by 
the Moriori could still then have defeated the Maori, who were outnum- 
bered two to one. However, the Moriori had a tradition of resolving dis- 
putes peacefully. They decided in a council meeting not to fight back but 
to offer peace, friendship, and a division of resources. 

Before the Moriori could deliver that offer, the Maori attacked en 
masse. Over the course of the next few days, they killed hundreds of Mori- 
ori, cooked and ate many of the bodies, and enslaved all the others, killing 
most of them too over the next few years as it suited their whim. A Moriori 
survivor recalled, "[The Maori] commenced to kill us like sheep.. . . [We] 
were terrified, fled to the bush, concealed ourselves in holes underground, 
and in any place to escape our enemies. It was of no avail; we were discov- 
ered and killed — men, women, and children indiscriminately." A Maori 
conqueror explained, "We took possession.. . in accordance with our cus- 


toms and we caught all the people. Not one escaped. Some ran away from 
us, these we killed, and others we killed — but what of that? It was in accor- 
dance with our custom." 

The brutal outcome of this collision between the Moriori and the Maori 
could have been easily predicted. The Moriori were a small, isolated popu- 
lation of hunter-gatherers, equipped with only the simplest technology and 
weapons, entirely inexperienced at war, and lacking strong leadership or 
organization. The Maori invaders (from New Zealand's North Island) 
came from a dense population of farmers chronically engaged in ferocious 
wars, equipped with more-advanced technology and weapons, and 
operating under strong leadership. Of course, when the two groups finally 
came into contact, it was the Maori who slaughtered the Moriori, not vice 

The tragedy of the Moriori resembles many other such tragedies in both 
the modern and the ancient world, pitting numerous well-equipped people 
against few ill-equipped opponents. What makes the Maori-Moriori colli- 
sion grimly illuminating is that both groups had diverged from a common 
origin less than a millennium earlier. Both were Polynesian peoples. The 
modern Maori are descendants of Polynesian farmers who colonized New 
Zealand around A.D. 1000. Soon thereafter, a group of those Maori in 
turn colonized the Chatham Islands and became the Moriori. In the centu- 
ries after the two groups separated, they evolved in opposite directions, 
the North Island Maori developing more-complex and the Moriori less- 
complex technology and political organization. The Moriori reverted to 
being hunter-gatherers, while the North Island Maori turned to more 
intensive farming. 

Those opposite evolutionary courses sealed the outcome of their even- 
tual collision. If we could understand the reasons for the disparate devel- 
opment of those two island societies, we might have a model for 
understanding the broader question of differing developments on the con- 

MORIORI AND MAORI history constitutes a brief, small-scale natural 
experiment that tests how environments affect human societies. Before you 
read a whole book examining environmental effects on a very large scale — 
effects on human societies around the world for the last 13,000 years — 
you might reasonably want assurance, from smaller tests, that such effects 


really are significant. If you were a laboratory scientist studying rats, you 
might perform such a test by taking one rat colony, distributing groups of 
those ancestral rats among many cages with differing environments, and 
coming back many rat generations later to see what had happened. Of 
course, such purposeful experiments cannot be carried out on human soci- 
eties. Instead, scientists must look for "natural experiments," in which 
something similar befell humans in the past. 

Such an experiment unfolded during the settlement of Polynesia. Scat- 
tered over the Pacific Ocean beyond New Guinea and Melanesia are thou- 
sands of islands differing greatly in area, isolation, elevation, climate, 
productivity, and geological and biological resources (Figure 2.1). For 
most of human history those islands lay far beyond the reach of water- 
craft. Around 1200 B.C. a group of farming, fishing, seafaring people from 
the Bismarck Archipelago north of New Guinea finally succeeded in reach- 
ing some of those islands. Over the following centuries their descendants 
colonized virtually every habitable scrap of land in the Pacific. The process 
was mostly complete by A.D. 500, with the last few islands settled around 
or soon after A. D. 1000. 

Thus, within a modest time span, enormously diverse island environ- 
ments were settled by colonists all of whom stemmed from the same 
founding population. The ultimate ancestors of all modern Polynesian 
populations shared essentially the same culture, language, technology, and 
set of domesticated plants and animals. Hence Polynesian history consti- 
tutes a natural experiment allowing us to study human adaptation, devoid 
of the usual complications of multiple waves of disparate colonists that 
often frustrate our attempts to understand adaptation elsewhere in the 

Within that medium-sized test, the fate of the Moriori forms a smaller 
test. It is easy to trace how the differing environments of the Chatham 
Islands and of New Zealand molded the Moriori and the Maori differ- 
ently. While those ancestral Maori who first colonized the Chathams may 
have been farmers, Maori tropical crops could not grow in the Chathams' 
cold climate, and the colonists had no alternative except to revert to being 
hunter-gatherers. Since as hunter-gatherers they did not produce crop sur- 
pluses available for redistribution or storage, they could not support and 
feed nonhunting craft specialists, armies, bureaucrats, and chiefs. Their 
prey were seals, shellfish, nesting seabirds, and fish that could be captured 
by hand or with clubs and required no more elaborate technology. In addi- 


• .,. Hawaii 

/ (North 


Samoa; - „ \ 


' k/-,v Societies ■? Tuamotus 

^ ■ o .■. —■■■ '"■■■■/ Henderson 

•ana, \ (RW T^a | \ " ' " " , 

Cooks _ _ / 

~A ■ VNew 




V Jf . 

' • Chathams 

Figure 2.1. Polynesian islands. (Parentheses denote some non-Polynesian 

tion, the Chathams are relatively small and remote islands, capable of sup- 
porting a total population of only about 2,000 hunter-gatherers. With no 
other accessible islands to colonize, the Moriori had to remain in the Chat- 
hams, and to learn how to get along with each other. They did so by 
renouncing war, and they reduced potential conflicts from overpopulation 
by castrating some male infants. The result was a small, unwarlike popula- 
tion with simple technology and weapons, and without strong leadership 
or organization. 

In contrast, the northern (warmer) part of New Zealand, by far the 
largest island group in Polynesia, was suitable for Polynesian agriculture. 
Those Maori who remained in New Zealand increased in numbers until 
there were more than 100,000 of them. They developed locally dense pop- 
ulations chronically engaged in ferocious wars with neighboring popula- 
tions. With the crop surpluses that they could grow and store, they fed 
craft specialists, chiefs, and part-time soldiers. They needed and developed 
varied tools for growing their crops, fighting, and making art. They erected 
elaborate ceremonial buildings and prodigious numbers of forts. 


Thus, Moriori and Maori societies developed from the same ancestral 
society, but along very different lines. The resulting two societies lost 
awareness even of each other's existence and did not come into contact 
again for many centuries, perhaps for as long as 500 years. Finally, an 
Australian seal-hunting ship visiting the Chathams en route to New 
Zealand brought the news to New Zealand of islands where "there is an 
abundance of sea and shellfish; the lakes swarm with eels; and it is a land 
of the karaka berry.. . . The inhabitants are very numerous, but they do 
not understand how to fight, and have no weapons." That news was 
enough to induce 900 Maori to sail to the Chathams. The outcome clearly 
illustrates how environments can affect economy, technology, political 
organization, and fighting skills within a short time. 

A s I ALREADY mentioned, the Maori-Moriori collision represents a 
small test within a medium-sized test. What can we learn from all of Poly- 
nesia about environmental influences on human societies? What differ- 
ences among societies on different Polynesian islands need to be 

Polynesia as a whole presented a much wider range of environmental 
conditions than did just New Zealand and the Chathams, although the 
latter define one extreme (the simple end) of Polynesian organization. In 
their subsistence modes, Polynesians ranged from the hunter-gatherers of 
the Chathams, through slash-and-burn farmers, to practitioners of inten- 
sive food production living at some of the highest population densities 
of any human societies. Polynesian food producers variously intensified 
production of pigs, dogs, and chickens. They organized work forces to 
construct large irrigation systems for agriculture and to enclose large 
ponds for fish production. The economic basis of Polynesian societies con- 
sisted of more or less self-sufficient households, but some islands also sup- 
ported guilds of hereditary part-time craft specialists. In social 
organization, Polynesian societies ran the gamut from fairly egalitarian 
village societies to some of the most stratified societies in the world, with 
many hierarchically ranked lineages and with chief and commoner classes 
whose members married within their own class. In political organization, 
Polynesian islands ranged from landscapes divided into independent tribal 
or village units, up to multi-island proto-empires that devoted standing 
military establishments to invasions of other islands and wars of conquest. 


Finally, Polynesian material culture varied from the production of no more 
than personal utensils to the construction of monumental stone architec- 
ture. How can all that variation be explained? 

Contributing to these differences among Polynesian societies were at 
least six sets of environmental variables among Polynesian islands: island 
climate, geological type, marine resources, area, terrain fragmentation, 
and isolation. Let's examine the ranges of these factors, before considering 
their specific consequences for Polynesian societies. 

The climate in Polynesia varies from warm tropical or subtropical on 
most islands, which lie near the equator, to temperate on most of New 
Zealand, and cold subantarctic on the Chathams and the southern part of 
New Zealand's South Island. Hawaii's Big Island, though lying well within 
the Tropic of Cancer, has mountains high enough to support alpine habi- 
tats and receive occasional snowfalls. Rainfall varies from the highest 
recorded on Earth (in New Zealand's Fjordland and Hawaii's Alakai 
Swamp on Kauai) to only one-tenth as much on islands so dry that they 
are marginal for agriculture. 

Island geological types include coral atolls, raised limestone, volcanic 
islands, pieces of continents, and mixtures of those types. At one extreme, 
innumerable islets, such as those of the Tuamotu Archipelago, are fiat, low 
atolls barely rising above sea level. Other former atolls, such as Henderson 
and Rennell, have been lifted far above sea level to constitute raised lime- 
stone islands. Both of those atoll types present problems to human settlers, 
because they consist entirely of limestone without other stones, have only 
very thin soil, and lack permanent fresh water. At the opposite extreme, 
the largest Polynesian island, New Zealand, is an old, geologically diverse, 
continental fragment of Gondwanaland, offering a range of mineral 
resources, including commercially exploitable iron, coal, gold, and jade. 
Most other large Polynesian islands are volcanoes that rose from the sea, 
have never formed parts of a continent, and may or may not include areas 
of raised limestone. While lacking New Zealand's geological richness, the 
oceanic volcanic islands at least are an improvement over atolls (from the 
Polynesians' perspective) in that they offer diverse types of volcanic stones, 
some of which are highly suitable for making stone tools. 

The volcanic islands differ among themselves. The elevations of the 
higher ones generate rain in the mountains, so the islands are heavily 
weathered and have deep soils and permanent streams. That is true, for 
instance, of the Societies, Samoa, the Marquesas, and especially Hawaii, 


the Polynesian archipelago with the highest mountains. Among the lower 
islands, Tonga and (to a lesser extent) Easter also have rich soil because of 
volcanic ashfalls, but they lack Hawaii's large streams. 

As for marine resources, most Polynesian islands are surrounded by 
shallow water and reefs, and many also encompass lagoons. Those envi- 
ronments teem with fish and shellfish. However, the rocky coasts of Easter, 
Pitcairn, and the Marquesas, and the steeply dropping ocean bottom and 
absence of coral reefs around those islands, are much less productive of 

Area is another obvious variable, ranging from the 100 acres of Anuta, 
the smallest permanently inhabited isolated Polynesian island, up to the 
103,000 square miles of the minicontinent of New Zealand. The habitable 
terrain of some islands, notably the Marquesas, is fragmented into steep- 
walled valleys by ridges, while other islands, such as Tonga and Easter, 
consist of gently rolling terrain presenting no obstacles to travel and com- 

The last environmental variable to consider is isolation. Easter Island 
and the Chathams are small and so remote from other islands that, once 
they were initially colonized, the societies thus founded developed in total 
isolation from the rest of the world. New Zealand, Hawaii, and the Mar- 
quesas are also very remote, but at least the latter two apparently did have 
some further contact with other archipelagoes after the first colonization, 
and all three consist of many islands close enough to each other for regular 
contact between islands of the same archipelago. Most other Polynesian 
islands were in more or less regular contact with other islands. In particu- 
lar, the Tongan Archipelago lies close enough to the Fijian, Samoan, and 
Wallis Archipelagoes to have permitted regular voyaging between archipel- 
agoes, and eventually to permit Tongans to undertake the conquest of Fiji. 

AFTER THAT BRIEF look at Polynesia's varying environments, let's now 
see how that variation influenced Polynesian societies. Subsistence is a con- 
venient facet of society with which to start, since it in turn affected other 

Polynesian subsistence depended on varying mixes of fishing, gathering 
wild plants and marine shellfish and Crustacea, hunting terrestrial birds 
and breeding seabirds, and food production. Most Polynesian islands orig- 
inally supported big flightless birds that had evolved in the absence of 


predators, New Zealand's moas and Hawaii's flightless geese being the 
best-known examples. While those birds were important food sources for 
the initial colonists, especially on New Zealand's South Island, most of 
them were soon exterminated on all islands, because they were easy to 
hunt down. Breeding seabirds were also quickly reduced in number but 
continued to be important food sources on some islands. Marine resources 
were significant on most islands but least so on Easter, Pitcairn, and the 
Marquesas, where people as a result were especially dependent on food 
that they themselves produced. 

Ancestral Polynesians brought with them three domesticated animals 
(the pig, chicken, and dog) and domesticated no other animals within 
Polynesia. Many islands retained all three of those species, but the more 
isolated Polynesian islands lacked one or more of them, either because 
livestock brought in canoes failed to survive the colonists' long overwater 
journey or because livestock that died out could not be readily obtained 
again from the outside. For instance, isolated New Zealand ended up with 
only dogs; Easter and Tikopia, with only chickens. Without access to coral 
reefs or productive shallow waters, and with their terrestrial birds quickly 
exterminated, Easter Islanders turned to constructing chicken houses for 
intensive poultry farming. 

At best, however, these three domesticated animal species provided only 
occasional meals. Polynesian food production depended mainly on agri- 
culture, which was impossible at subantarctic latitudes because all Polyne- 
sian crops were tropical ones initially domesticated outside Polynesia and 
brought in by colonists. The settlers of the Chathams and the cold south- 
ern part of New Zealand's South Island were thus forced to abandon the 
farming legacy developed by their ancestors over the previous thousands 
of years, and to become hunter-gatherers again. 

People on the remaining Polynesian islands did practice agriculture 
based on dryland crops (especially taro, yams, and sweet potatoes), irri- 
gated crops (mainly taro), and tree crops (such as breadfruit, bananas, and 
coconuts). The productivity and relative importance of those crop types 
varied considerably on different islands, depending on their environments. 
Human population densities were lowest on Henderson, Rennell, and the 
atolls because of their poor soil and limited fresh water. Densities were 
also low on temperate New Zealand, which was too cool for some Polyne- 
sian crops. Polynesians on these and some other islands practiced a nonin-i 
tensive type of shifting, slash-and-burn agriculture. 


Other islands had rich soils but were not high enough to have large 
permanent streams and hence irrigation. Inhabitants of those islands devel- 
oped intensive dryland agriculture requiring a heavy input of labor to 
build terraces, carry out mulching, rotate crops, reduce or eliminate fallow 
periods, and maintain tree plantations. Dryland agriculture became espe- 
cially productive on Easter, tiny Anuta, and flat and low Tonga, where 
Polynesians devoted most of the land area to the growing of food. 

The most productive Polynesian agriculture was taro cultivation in irri- 
gated fields. Among the more populous tropical islands, that option was 
ruled out for Tonga by its low elevation and hence its lack of rivers. Irriga- 
tion agriculture reached its peak on the westernmost Hawaiian islands of 
Kauai, Oahu, and Molokai, which were big and wet enough to support 
not only large permanent streams but also large human populations avail- 
able for construction projects. Hawaiian labor corvees built elaborate irri- 
gation systems for taro fields yielding up to 24 tons per acre, the highest 
crop yields in all of Polynesia. Those yields in turn supported intensive pig 
production. Hawaii was also unique within Polynesia in using mass labor 
for aquaculture, by constructing large fishponds in which milkfish and 
mullet were grown. 

Asa RESULT of all this environmentally related variation in subsistence, 
human population densities (measured in people per square mile of arable 
land) varied greatly over Polynesia. At the lower end were the hunter- 
gatherers of the Chathams (only 5 people per square mile) and of New 
Zealand's South Island, and the farmers of the rest of New Zealand (28 
people per square mile). In contrast, many islands with intensive agricul- 
ture attained population densities exceeding 120 per square mile. Tonga, 
Samoa, and the Societies achieved 210-250 people per square mile and 
Hawaii 300. The upper extreme of 1,100 people per square mile was 
reached on the high island of Anuta, whose population converted essen- 
tially all the land to intensive food production, thereby crammed 160 peo- 
ple into the island's 100 acres, and joined the ranks of the densest self- 
sufficient populations in the world. Anuta's population density exceeded 
that of modern Holland and even rivaled that of Bangladesh. 

Population size is the product of population density (people per square 
mile) and area (square miles). The relevant area is not the area of an island 
but that of a political unit, which could be either larger or smaller than a 


single island. On the one hand, islands near one another might become 
combined into a single political unit. On the other hand, single large rug- 
ged islands were divided into many independent political units. Hence the 
area of the political unit varied not only with an island's area but also with 
its fragmentation and isolation. 

For small isolated islands without strong barriers to internal communi- 
cation, the entire island constituted the political unit — as in the case of 
Anuta, with its 160 people. Many larger islands never did become unified 
politically, whether because the population consisted of dispersed bands of 
only a few dozen hunter-gatherers each (the Chathams and New Zealand's 
southern South Island), or of farmers scattered over large distances (the 
rest of New Zealand), or of farmers living in dense populations but in 
rugged terrain precluding political unification. For example, people in 
neighboring steep-sided valleys of the Marquesas communicated with each 
other mainly by sea; each valley formed an independent political entity of 
a few thousand inhabitants, and most individual large Marquesan islands 
remained divided into many such entities. 

The terrains of the Tongan, Samoan, Society, and Hawaiian islands did 
permit political unification within islands, yielding political units of 
10,000 people or more (over 30,000 on the large Hawaiian islands). The 
distances between islands of the Tongan archipelago, as well as the dis- 
tances between Tonga and neighboring archipelagoes, were sufficiently 
modest that a multi-island empire encompassing 40,000 people was even- 
tually established. Thus, Polynesian political units ranged in size from a 
few dozen to 40,000 people. 

A political unit's population size interacted with its population density 
to influence Polynesian technology and economic, social, and political 
organization. In general, the larger the size and the higher the density, the 
more complex and specialized were the technology and organization, for 
reasons that we shall examine in detail in later chapters. Briefly, at high 
population densities only a portion of the people came to be farmers, but 
they were mobilized to devote themselves to intensive food production, 
thereby yielding surpluses to feed nonproducers. The nonproducers mobi- 
lizing them included chiefs, priests, bureaucrats, and warriors. The biggest 
political units could assemble large labor forces to construct irrigation sys- 
tems and fishponds that intensified food production even further. These 
developments were especially apparent on Tonga, Samoa, and the Socie- 
ties, all of which were fertile, densely populated, and moderately large by 


Polynesian standards. The trends reached their zenith on the Hawaiian 
Archipelago, consisting of the largest tropical Polynesian islands, where 
high population densities and large land areas meant that very large labor 
forces were potentially available to individual chiefs. 

The variations among Polynesian societies associated with different 
population densities and sizes were as follows. Economies remained sim- 
plest on islands with low population densities (such as the hunter-gather- 
ers of the Chathams), low population numbers (small atolls), or both low 
densities and low numbers. In those societies each household made what 
it needed; there was little or no economic specialization. Specialization 
increased on larger, more densely populated islands, reaching a peak on 
Samoa, the Societies, and especially Tonga and Hawaii. The latter two 
islands supported hereditary part-time craft specialists, including canoe 
builders, navigators, stone masons, bird catchers, and tattooers. 

Social complexity was similarly varied. Again, the Chathams and the 
atolls had the simplest, most egalitarian societies. While those islands 
retained the original Polynesian tradition of having chiefs, their chiefs 
wore little or no visible signs of distinction, lived in ordinary huts like 
those of commoners, and grew or caught their food like everyone else. 
Social distinctions and chiefly powers increased on high-density islands 
with large political units, being especially marked on Tonga and the Socie- 

Social complexity again reached its peak in the Hawaiian Archipelago, 
where people of chiefly descent were divided into eight hierarchically 
ranked lineages. Members of those chiefly lineages did not intermarry with 
commoners but only with each other, sometimes even with siblings or half- 
siblings. Commoners had to prostrate themselves before high-ranking 
chiefs. All the members of chiefly lineages, bureaucrats, and some craft 
specialists were freed from the work of food production. 

Political organization followed the same trends. On the Chathams and 
atolls, the chiefs had few resources to command, decisions were reached 
by general discussion, and landownership rested with the community as a 
whole rather than with the chiefs. Larger, more densely populated political 
units concentrated more authority with the chiefs. Political complexity 
was greatest on Tonga and Hawaii, where the powers of hereditary chiefs 
approximated those of kings elsewhere in the world, and where land was 
controlled by the chiefs, not by the commoners. Using appointed bureau- 
crats as agents, chiefs requisitioned food from the commoners and also 


conscripted them to work on large construction projects, whose form var- 
ied from island to island: irrigation projects and fishponds on Hawaii, 
dance and feast centers on the Marquesas, chiefs' tombs on Tonga, and 
temples on Hawaii, the Societies, and Easter. 

At the time of Europeans' arrival in the 18th century, the Tongan chief- 
dom or state had already become an inter-archipelagal empire. Because 
the Tongan Archipelago itself was geographically close-knit and included 
several large islands with unfragmented terrain, each island became unified 
under a single chief; then the hereditary chiefs of the largest Tongan island 
(Tongatapu) united the whole archipelago, and eventually they conquered 
islands outside the archipelago up to 500 miles distant. They engaged in 
regular long-distance trade with Fiji and Samoa, established Tongan settle- 
ments in Fiji, and began to raid and conquer parts of Fiji. The conquest 
and administration of this maritime proto-empire were achieved by navies 
of large canoes, each holding up to 150 men. 

Like Tonga, Hawaii became a political entity encompassing several 
populous islands, but one confined to a single archipelago because of its 
extreme isolation. At the time of Hawaii's "discovery" by Europeans in 
1778, political unification had already taken place within each Hawaiian 
island, and some political fusion between islands had begun. The four 
largest islands — Big Island (Hawaii in the narrow sense), Maui, Oahu, and 
Kauai — remained independent, controlling (or jockeying with each other 
for control of) the smaller islands (Lanai, Molokai, Kahoolawe, and Nii-i 
hau). After the arrival of Europeans, the Big Island's King Kamehameha I 
rapidly proceeded with the consolidation of the largest islands by purchas- 
ing European guns and ships to invade and conquer first Maui and then 
Oahu. Kamehameha thereupon prepared invasions of the last independent 
Hawaiian island, Kauai, whose chief finally reached a negotiated settle- 
ment with him, completing the archipelago's unification. 

The remaining type of variation among Polynesian societies to be con- 
sidered involves tools and other aspects of material culture. The differing 
availability of raw materials imposed an obvious constraint on material 
culture. At the one extreme was Henderson Island, an old coral reef raised 
above sea level and devoid of stone other than limestone. Its inhabitants 
were reduced to fabricating adzes out of giant clamshells. At the opposite 
extreme, the Maori on the minicontinent of New Zealand had access to a 
wide range of raw materials and became especially noted for their use of 
jade. Between those two extremes fell Polynesia's oceanic volcanic islands, 


which lacked granite, flint, and other continental rocks but did at least 
have volcanic rocks, which Polynesians worked into ground or polished 
stone adzes used to clear land for farming. 

As for the types of artifacts made, the Chatham Islanders required little 
more than hand-held clubs and sticks to kill seals, birds, and lobsters. 
Most other islanders produced a diverse array of fishhooks, adzes, jewelry, 
and other objects. On the atolls, as on the Chathams, those artifacts were 
small, relatively simple, and individually produced and owned, while 
architecture consisted of nothing more than simple huts. Large and densely 
populated islands supported craft specialists who produced a wide range 
of prestige goods for chiefs — such as the feather capes reserved for Hawai- 
ian chiefs and made of tens of thousands of bird feathers. 

The largest products of Polynesia were the immense stone structures of 
a few islands — the famous giant statues of Easter Island, the tombs of Ton-i 
gan chiefs, the ceremonial platforms of the Marquesas, and the temples of 
Hawaii and the Societies. This monumental Polynesian architecture was 
obviously evolving in the same direction as the pyramids of Egypt, Meso- 
potamia, Mexico, and Peru. Naturally, Polynesia's structures are not on 
the scale of those pyramids, but that merely reflects the fact that Egyptian 
pharaohs could draw conscript labor from a much larger human popula- 
tion than could the chief of any Polynesian island. Even so, the Easter 
Islanders managed to erect 30-ton stone statues — no mean feat for an 
island with only 7,000 people, who had no power source other than their 
own muscles. 

THUS, POLYNESIAN ISLAND societies differed greatly in their eco- 
nomic specialization, social complexity, political organization, and mate- 
rial products, related to differences in population size and density, related 
in turn to differences in island area, fragmentation, and isolation and in 
opportunities for subsistence and for intensifying food production. All 
those differences among Polynesian societies developed, within a relatively 
short time and modest fraction of the Earth's surface, as environmentally 
related variations on a single ancestral society. Those categories of cultural 
differences within Polynesia are essentially the same categories that 
emerged everywhere else in the world. 

Of course, the range of variation over the rest of the globe is much 
greater than that within Polynesia. While modern continental peoples 


included ones dependent on stone tools, as were Polynesians, South 
America also spawned societies expert in using precious metals, and Eur- 
asians and Africans went on to utilize iron. Those developments were pre- 
cluded in Polynesia, because no Polynesian island except New Zealand 
had significant metal deposits. Eurasia had full-fledged empires before 
Polynesia was even settled, and South America and Mesoamerica devel- 
oped empires later, whereas Polynesia produced just two proto-empires, 
one of which (Hawaii) coalesced only after the arrival of Europeans. 
Eurasia and Mesoamerica developed indigenous writing, which failed to 
emerge in Polynesia, except perhaps on Easter Island, whose mysterious 
script may however have postdated the islanders' contact with Europeans. 

That is, Polynesia offers us a small slice, not the full spectrum, of the 
world's human social diversity. That shouldn't surprise us, since Polynesia 
provides only a small slice of the world's geographic diversity. In addition, 
since Polynesia was colonized so late in human history, even the oldest 
Polynesian societies had only 3,200 years in which to develop, as opposed 
to at least 13,000 years for societies on even the last-colonized continents 
(the Americas). Given a few more millennia, perhaps Tonga and Hawaii 
would have reached the level of full-fledged empires battling each other 
for control of the Pacific, with indigenously developed writing to adminis- 
ter those empires, while New Zealand's Maori might have added copper 
and iron tools to their repertoire of jade and other materials. 

In short, Polynesia furnishes us with a convincing example of environ- 
mentally related diversification of human societies in operation. But we 
thereby learn only that it can happen, because it happened in Polynesia. 
Did it also happen on the continents? If so, what were the environmental 
differences responsible for diversification on the continents, and what were 
their consequences? 



been the colonization of the New World by Europeans, and the 
resulting conquest, numerical reduction, or complete disappearance of 
most groups of Native Americans (American Indians). As I explained in 
Chapter 1, the New World was initially colonized around or before 1 1,000 
B.C. by way of Alaska, the Bering Strait, and Siberia. Complex agricultural 
societies gradually arose in the Americas far to the south of that entry 
route, developing in complete isolation from the emerging complex socie- 
ties of the Old World. After that initial colonization from Asia, the sole 
well-attested further contacts between the New World and Asia involved 
only hunter-gatherers living on opposite sides of the Bering Strait, plus an 
inferred transpacific voyage that introduced the sweet potato from South 
America to Polynesia. 

As for contacts of New World peoples with Europe, the sole early ones 
involved the Norse who occupied Greenland in very small numbers 
between A.D. 986 and about 1500. But those Norse visits had no discern- 
ible impact on Native American societies. Instead, for practical purposes 
the collision of advanced Old World and New World societies began 
abruptly in A.D. 1492, with Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of Carib- 
bean islands densely populated by Native Americans. 

The most dramatic moment in subsequent European-Native American 


relations was the first encounter between the Inca emperor Atahuallpa and 
the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro at the Peruvian highland town 
of Cajamarca on November 16, 1532. Atahuallpa was absolute monarch 
of the largest and most advanced state in the New World, while Pizarro 
represented the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (also known as King 
Charles I of Spain), monarch of the most powerful state in Europe. 
Pizarro, leading a ragtag group of 168 Spanish soldiers, was in unfamiliar 
terrain, ignorant of the local inhabitants, completely out of touch with the 
nearest Spaniards (1,000 miles to the north in Panama) and far beyond the 
reach of timely reinforcements. Atahuallpa was in the middle of his own 
empire of millions of subjects and immediately surrounded by his army of 
80,000 soldiers, recently victorious in a war with other Indians. Neverthe- 
less, Pizarro captured Atahuallpa within a few minutes after the two lead- 
ers first set eyes on each other. Pizarro proceeded to hold his prisoner 
for eight months, while extracting history's largest ransom in return for a 
promise to free him. After the ransom — enough gold to fill a room 22 feet 
long by 17 feet wide to a height of over 8 feet — was delivered, Pizarro 
reneged on his promise and executed Atahuallpa. 

Atahuallpa's capture was decisive for the European conquest of the Inca 
Empire. Although the Spaniards' superior weapons would have assured an 
ultimate Spanish victory in any case, the capture made the conquest 
quicker and infinitely easier. Atahuallpa was revered by the Incas as a sun- 
god and exercised absolute authority over his subjects, who obeyed even 
the orders he issued from captivity. The months until his death gave 
Pizarro time to dispatch exploring parties unmolested to other parts of the 
Inca Empire, and to send for reinforcements from Panama. When fighting 
between Spaniards and Incas finally did commence after Atahuallpa's exe- 
cution, the Spanish forces were more formidable. 

Thus, Atahuallpa's capture interests us specifically as marking the deci- 
sive moment in the greatest collision of modern history. But it is also of 
more general interest, because the factors that resulted in Pizarro's seizing 
Atahuallpa were essentially the same ones that determined the outcome of 
many similar collisions between colonizers and native peoples elsewhere 
in the modern world. Hence Atahuallpa's capture offers us a broad win- 
dow onto world history. 

WHAT UNFOLDED THAT day at Cajamarca is well known, because it 
was recorded in writing by many of the Spanish participants. To get a 


flavor of those events, let us relive them by weaving together excerpts from 
eyewitness accounts by six of Pizarro's companions, including his brothers 
Hernando and Pedro: 

"The prudence, fortitude, military discipline, labors, perilous naviga- 
tions, and battles of the Spaniards — vassals of the most invincible Emperor 
of the Roman Catholic Empire, our natural King and Lord — will cause joy 
to the faithful and terror to the infidels. For this reason, and for the glory 
of God our Lord and for the service of the Catholic Imperial Majesty, it 
has seemed good to me to write this narrative, and to send it to Your 
Majesty, that all may have a knowledge of what is here related. It will be 
to the glory of God, because they have conquered and brought to our holy 
Catholic Faith so vast a number of heathens, aided by His holy guidance. 
It will be to the honor of our Emperor because, by reason of his great 
power and good fortune, such events happened in his time. It will give joy 
to the faithful that such battles have been won, such provinces discovered 
and conquered, such riches brought home for the King and for themselves; 
and that such terror has been spread among the infidels, such admiration 
excited in all mankind. 

"For when, either in ancient or modern times, have such great exploits 
been achieved by so few against so many, over so many climes, across so 
many seas, over such distances by land, to subdue the unseen and 
unknown? Whose deeds can be compared with those of Spain? Our Span- 
iards, being few in number, never having more than 200 or 300 men 
together, and sometimes only 100 and even fewer, have, in our times, con- 
quered more territory than has ever been known before, or than all the 
faithful and infidel princes possess. I will only write, at present, of what 
befell in the conquest, and I will not write much, in order to avoid pro- 

"Governor Pizarro wished to obtain intelligence from some Indians 
who had come from Cajamarca, so he had them tortured. They confessed 
that they had heard that Atahuallpa was waiting for the Governor at Caja- 
marca. The Governor then ordered us to advance. On reaching the 
entrance to Cajamarca, we saw the camp of Atahuallpa at a distance of a 
league, in the skirts of the mountains. The Indians' camp looked like a 
very beautiful city. They had so many tents that we were all filled with 
great apprehension. Until then, we had never seen anything like this in the 
Indies. It filled all our Spaniards with fear and confusion. But we could 
not show any fear or turn back, for if the Indians had sensed any weakness 
in us, even the Indians that we were bringing with us as guides would have 


killed us. So we made a show of good spirits, and after carefully observing 
the town and the tents, we descended into the valley and entered Caja-i 

"We talked a lot among ourselves about what to do. All of us were full 
of fear, because we were so few in number and we had penetrated so far 
into a land where we could not hope to receive reinforcements. We all met 
with the Governor to debate what we should undertake the next day. Few 
of us slept that night, and we kept watch in the square of Cajamarca, 
looking at the campfires of the Indian army. It was a frightening sight. 
Most of the campfires were on a hillside and so close to each other that it 
looked like the sky brightly studded with stars. There was no distinction 
that night between the mighty and the lowly, or between foot soldiers and 
horsemen. Everyone carried out sentry duty fully armed. So too did the 
good old Governor, who went about encouraging his men. The Governor's 
brother Hernando Pizarro estimated the number of Indian soldiers there 
at 40,000, but he was telling a lie just to encourage us, for there were 
actually more than 80,000 Indians. 

"On the next morning a messenger from Atahuallpa arrived, and the 
Governor said to him, Tell your lord to come when and how he pleases, 
and that, in what way soever he may come I will receive him as a friend 
and brother. I pray that he may come quickly, for I desire to see him. No 
harm or insult will befall him.' 

"The Governor concealed his troops around the square at Cajamarca, 
dividing the cavalry into two portions of which he gave the command of 
one to his brother Hernando Pizarro and the command of the other to 
Hernando de Soto. In like manner he divided the infantry, he himself tak- 
ing one part and giving the other to his brother Juan Pizarro. At the same 
time, he ordered Pedro de Candia with two or three infantrymen to go 
with trumpets to a small fort in the plaza and to station themselves there 
with a small piece of artillery. When all the Indians, and Atahuallpa with 
them, had entered the Plaza, the Governor would give a signal to Candia 
and his men, after which they should start firing the gun, and the trumpets 
should sound, and at the sound of the trumpets the cavalry should dash 
out of the large court where they were waiting hidden in readiness. 

"At noon Atahuallpa began to draw up his men and to approach. Soon 
we saw the entire plain full of Indians, halting periodically to wait for 
more Indians who kept filing out of the camp behind them. They kept 
filling out in separate detachments into the afternoon. The front detach- 



ments were now close to our camp, and still more troops kept issuing from 
the camp of the Indians. In front of Atahuallpa went 2,000 Indians who 
swept the road ahead of him, and these were followed by the warriors, 
half of whom were marching in the fields on one side of him and half on 
the other side. 

"First came a squadron of Indians dressed in clothes of different colors, 
like a chessboard. They advanced, removing the straws from the ground 
and sweeping the road. Next came three squadrons in different dresses, 
dancing and singing. Then came a number of men with armor, large metal 
plates, and crowns of gold and silver. So great was the amount of furniture 
of gold and silver which they bore, that it was a marvel to observe how 
the sun glinted upon it. Among them came the figure of Atahuallpa in a 
very fine litter with the ends of its timbers covered in silver. Eighty lords 
carried him on their shoulders, all wearing a very rich blue livery. Ata- 
huallpa himself was very richly dressed, with his crown on his head and a 
collar of large emeralds around his neck. He sat on a small stool with a 
rich saddle cushion resting on his litter. The litter was lined with parrot 
feathers of many colors and decorated with plates of gold and silver. 

"Behind Atahuallpa came two other litters and two hammocks, in 
which were some high chiefs, then several squadrons of Indians with 
crowns of gold and silver. These Indian squadrons began to enter the plaza 
to the accompaniment of great songs, and thus entering they occupied 
every part of the plaza. In the meantime all of us Spaniards were waiting 
ready, hidden in a courtyard, full of fear. Many of us urinated without 
noticing it, out of sheer terror. On reaching the center of the plaza, Ata- 
huallpa remained in his litter on high, while his troops continued to file in 
behind him. 

"Governor Pizarro now sent Friar Vicente de Valverde to go speak to 
Atahuallpa, and to require Atahuallpa in the name of God and of the King 
of Spain that Atahuallpa subject himself to the law of our Lord Jesus 
Christ and to the service of His Majesty the King of Spain. Advancing with 
a cross in one hand and the Bible in the other hand, and going among the 
Indian troops up to the place where Atahuallpa was, the Friar thus 
addressed him: 'I am a Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of 
God, and in like manner I come to teach you. What I teach is that which 
God says to us in this Book. Therefore, on the part of God and of the 
Christians, I beseech you to be their friend, for such is God's will, and it 
will be for your good.' 


"Atahuallpa asked for the Book, that he might look at it, and the Friar 
gave it to him closed. Atahuallpa did not know how to open the Book, 
and the Friar was extending his arm to do so, when Atahuallpa, in great 
anger, gave him a blow on the arm, not wishing that it should be opened. 
Then he opened it himself, and, without any astonishment at the letters 
and paper he threw it away from him five or six paces, his face a deep 

"The Friar returned to Pizarro, shouting, 'Come out! Come out, Chris- 
tians! Come at these enemy dogs who reject the things of God. That tyrant 
has thrown my book of holy law to the ground! Did you not see what 
happened? Why remain polite and servile toward this over-proud dog 
when the plains are full of Indians? March out against him, for I absolve 

"The governor then gave the signal to Candia, who began to fire off the 
guns. At the same time the trumpets were sounded, and the armored Span- 
ish troops, both cavalry and infantry, sallied forth out of their hiding 
places straight into the mass of unarmed Indians crowding the square, 
giving the Spanish battle cry, 'Santiago!' We had placed rattles on the 
horses to terrify the Indians. The booming of the guns, the blowing of the 
trumpets, and the rattles on the horses threw the Indians into panicked 
confusion. The Spaniards fell upon them and began to cut them to pieces. 
The Indians were so filled with fear that they climbed on top of one 
another, formed mounds, and suffocated each other. Since they were 
unarmed, they were attacked without danger to any Christian. The cavalry 
rode them down, killing and wounding, and following in pursuit. The 
infantry made so good an assault on those that remained that in a short 
time most of them were put to the sword. 

"The Governor himself took his sword and dagger, entered the thick of 
the Indians with the Spaniards who were with him, and with great bravery 
reached Atahuallpa's litter. He fearlessly grabbed Atahuallpa's left arm 
and shouted 'Santiago!,' but he could not pull Atahuallpa out of his litter 
because it was held up high. Although we killed the Indians who held the 
litter, others at once took their places and held it aloft, and in this manner 
we spent a long time in overcoming and killing Indians. Finally seven or 
eight Spaniards on horseback spurred on their horses, rushed upon the 
litter from one side, and with great effort they heaved it over on its side. 
In that way Atahuallpa was captured, and the Governor took Atahuallpa 


to his lodging. The Indians carrying the litter, and those escorting Ata-i 
huallpa, never abandoned him: all died around him. 

"The panic-stricken Indians remaining in the square, terrified at the fir- 
ing of the guns and at the horses — something they had never seen — tried 
to flee from the square by knocking down a stretch of wall and running 
out onto the plain outside. Our cavalry jumped the broken wall and 
charged into the plain, shouting, 'Chase those with the fancy clothes! 
Don't let any escape! Spear them!' All of the other Indian soldiers whom 
Atahuallpa had brought were a mile from Cajamarca ready for battle, but 
not one made a move, and during all this not one Indian raised a weapon 
against a Spaniard. When the squadrons of Indians who had remained in 
the plain outside the town saw the other Indians fleeing and shouting, most 
of them too panicked and fled. It was an astonishing sight, for the whole 
valley for 15 or 20 miles was completely filled with Indians. Night had 
already fallen, and our cavalry were continuing to spear Indians in the 
fields, when we heard a trumpet calling for us to reassemble at camp. 

"If night had not come on, few out of the more than 40,000 Indian 
troops would have been left alive. Six or seven thousand Indians lay dead, 
and many more had their arms cut off and other wounds. Atahuallpa him- 
self admitted that we had killed 7,000 of his men in that battle. The man 
killed in one of the litters was his minister, the lord of Chincha, of whom 
he was very fond. All those Indians who bore Atahuallpa's litter appeared 
to be high chiefs and councillors. They were all killed, as well as those 
Indians who were carried in the other litters and hammocks. The lord of 
Cajamarca was also killed, and others, but their numbers were so great 
that they could not be counted, for all who came in attendance on Ata- 
huallpa were great lords. It was extraordinary to see so powerful a ruler 
captured in so short a time, when he had come with such a mighty army. 
Truly, it was not accomplished by our own forces, for there were so few 
of us. It was by the grace of God, which is great. 

"Atahuallpa's robes had been torn off when the Spaniards pulled him 
out of his litter. The Governor ordered clothes to be brought to him, and 
when Atahuallpa was dressed, the Governor ordered Atahuallpa to sit 
near him and soothed his rage and agitation at finding himself so quickly 
fallen from his high estate. The Governor said to Atahuallpa, 'Do not take 
it as an insult that you have been defeated and taken prisoner, for with the 
Christians who come with me, though so few in number, I have conquered 


greater kingdoms than yours, and have defeated other more powerful 
lords than you, imposing upon them the dominion of the Emperor, whose 
vassal I am, and who is King of Spain and of the universal world. We come 
to conquer this land by his command, that all may come to a knowledge 
of God and of His Holy Catholic Faith; and by reason of our good mis- 
sion, God, the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things in them, per- 
mits this, in order that you may know Him and come out from the bestial 
and diabolical life that you lead. It is for this reason that we, being so few 
in number, subjugate that vast host. When you have seen the errors in 
which you live, you will understand the good that we have done you by 
coming to your land by order of his Majesty the King of Spain. Our Lord 
permitted that your pride should be brought low and that no Indian 
should be able to offend a Christian.' " 

L E T US NOW trace the chain of causation in this extraordinary confron- 
tation, beginning with the immediate events. When Pizarro and Atahuallpa 
met at Cajamarca, why did Pizarro capture Atahuallpa and kill so many 
of his followers, instead of Atahuallpa's vastly more numerous forces cap- 
turing and killing Pizarro? After all, Pizarro had only 62 soldiers mounted 
on horses, along with 106 foot soldiers, while Atahuallpa commanded an 
army of about 80,000. As for the antecedents of those events, how did 
Atahuallpa come to be at Cajamarca at all? How did Pizarro come to be 
there to capture him, instead of Atahuallpa's coming to Spain to capture 
King Charles I? Why did Atahuallpa walk into what seems to us, with the 
gift of hindsight, to have been such a transparent trap? Did the factors 
acting in the encounter of Atahuallpa and Pizarro also play a broader role 
in encounters between Old World and New World peoples and between 
other peoples? 

Why did Pizarro capture Atahuallpa ? Pizarro's military advantages lay 
in the Spaniards' steel swords and other weapons, steel armor, guns, and 
horses. To those weapons, Atahuallpa's troops, without animals on which 
to ride into battle, could oppose only stone, bronze, or wooden clubs, 
maces, and hand axes, plus slingshots and quilted armor. Such imbalances 
of equipment were decisive in innumerable other confrontations of Euro- 
peans with Native Americans and other peoples. 

The sole Native Americans able to resist European conquest for many 


centuries were those tribes that reduced the military disparity by acquiring 
and mastering both horses and guns. To the average white American, the 
word "Indian" conjures up an image of a mounted Plains Indian bran- 
dishing a rifle, like the Sioux warriors who annihilated General George 
Custer's U.S. Army battalion at the famous battle of the Little Big Horn in 
1876. We easily forget that horses and rifles were originally unknown to 
Native Americans. They were brought by Europeans and proceeded to 
transform the societies of Indian tribes that acquired them. Thanks to their 
mastery of horses and rifles, the Plains Indians of North America, the 
Araucanian Indians of southern Chile, and the Pampas Indians of Argen- 
tina fought off invading whites longer than did any other Native Ameri- 
cans, succumbing only to massive army operations by white governments 
in the 1870s and 1880s. 

Today, it is hard for us to grasp the enormous numerical odds against 
which the Spaniards' military equipment prevailed. At the battle of Caja-i 
marca recounted above, 168 Spaniards crushed a Native American army 
500 times more numerous, killing thousands of natives while not losing a 
single Spaniard. Time and again, accounts of Pizarro's subsequent battles 
with the Incas, Cortes's conquest of the Aztecs, and other early European 
campaigns against Native Americans describe encounters in which a few 
dozen European horsemen routed thousands of Indians with great slaugh- 
ter. During Pizarro's march from Cajamarca to the Inca capital of Cuzco 
after Atahuallpa's death, there were four such battles: at Jauja, Vilcashua-i 
man, Vilcaconga, and Cuzco. Those four battles involved a mere 80, 30, 
110, and 40 Spanish horsemen, respectively, in each case ranged against 
thousands or tens of thousands of Indians. 

These Spanish victories cannot be written off as due merely to the help 
of Native American allies, to the psychological novelty of Spanish weap- 
ons and horses, or (as is often claimed) to the Incas' mistaking Spaniards 
for their returning god Viracocha. The initial successes of both Pizarro and 
Cortes did attract native allies. However, many of them would not have 
become allies if they had not already been persuaded, by earlier devasta- 
ting successes of unassisted Spaniards, that resistance was futile and that 
they should side with the likely winners. The novelty of horses, steel weap- 
ons, and guns undoubtedly paralyzed the Incas at Cajamarca, but the bat- 
tles after Cajamarca were fought against determined resistance by Inca 
armies that had already seen Spanish weapons and horses. Within half a 


dozen years of the initial conquest, Incas mounted two desperate, large- 
scale, well-prepared rebellions against the Spaniards. All those efforts 
failed because of the Spaniards' far superior armament. 

By the 1700s, guns had replaced swords as the main weapon favoring 
European invaders over Native Americans and other native peoples. For 
example, in 1808 a British sailor named Charlie Savage equipped with 
muskets and excellent aim arrived in the Fiji Islands. The aptly named 
Savage proceeded single-handedly to upset Fiji's balance of power. Among 
his many exploits, he paddled his canoe up a river to the Fijian village of 
Kasavu, halted less than a pistol shot's length from the village fence, and 
fired away at the undefended inhabitants. His victims were so numerous 
that surviving villagers piled up the bodies to take shelter behind them, 
and the stream beside the village was red with blood. Such examples of 
the power of guns against native peoples lacking guns could be multiplied 

In the Spanish conquest of the Incas, guns played only a minor role. 
The guns of those times (so-called harquebuses) were difficult to load and 
fire, and Pizarro had only a dozen of them. They did produce a big psycho- 
logical effect on those occasions when they managed to fire. Far more 
important were the Spaniards' steel swords, lances, and daggers, strong 
sharp weapons that slaughtered thinly armored Indians. In contrast, 
Indian blunt clubs, while capable of battering and wounding Spaniards 
and their horses, rarely succeeded in killing them. The Spaniards' steel or 
chain mail armor and, above all, their steel helmets usually provided an 
effective defense against club blows, while the Indians' quilted armor 
offered no protection against steel weapons. 

The tremendous advantage that the Spaniards gained from their horses 
leaps out of the eyewitness accounts. Horsemen could easily outride Indian 
sentries before the sentries had time to warn Indian troops behind them, 
and could ride down and kill Indians on foot. The shock of a horse's 
charge, its maneuverability, the speed of attack that it permitted, and the 
raised and protected fighting platform that it provided left foot soldiers 
nearly helpless in the open. Nor was the effect of horses due only to the 
terror that they inspired in soldiers fighting against them for the first time. 
By the time of the great Inca rebellion of 1536, the Incas had learned how 
best to defend themselves against cavalry, by ambushing and annihilating 
Spanish horsemen in narrow passes. But the Incas, like all other foot sol- 
diers, were never able to defeat cavalry in the open. When Quizo Yupan- 



qui, the best general of the Inca emperor Manco, who succeeded 
Atahuallpa, besieged the Spaniards in Lima in 1536 and tried to storm the 
city, two squadrons of Spanish cavalry charged a much larger Indian force 
on flat ground, killed Quizo and all of his commanders in the first charge, 
and routed his army. A similar cavalry charge of 26 horsemen routed the 
best troops of Emperor Manco himself, as he was besieging the Spaniards 
in Cuzco. 

The transformation of warfare by horses began with their domestica- 
tion around 4000 B.C., in the steppes north of the Black Sea. Horses per- 
mitted people possessing them to cover far greater distances than was 
possible on foot, to attack by surprise, and to flee before a superior 
defending force could be gathered. Their role at Cajamarca thus exempli- 
fies a military weapon that remained potent for 6,000 years, until the early 
20th century, and that was eventually applied on all the continents. Not 
until the First World War did the military dominance of cavalry finally 
end. When we consider the advantages that Spaniards derived from horses, 
steel weapons, and armor against foot soldiers without metal, it should no 
longer surprise us that Spaniards consistently won battles against enor- 
mous odds. 

How did Atahuallpa come to be at Cajamarca? Atahuallpa and his 
army came to be at Cajamarca because they had just won decisive battles 
in a civil war that left the Incas divided and vulnerable. Pizarro quickly 
appreciated those divisions and exploited them. The reason for the civil 
war was that an epidemic of smallpox, spreading overland among South 
American Indians after its arrival with Spanish settlers in Panama and 
Colombia, had killed the Inca emperor Huayna Capac and most of his 
court around 1526, and then immediately killed his designated heir, Ninan 
Cuyuchi. Those deaths precipitated a contest for the throne between Ata- 
huallpa and his half brother Huascar. If it had not been for the epidemic, 
the Spaniards would have faced a united empire. 

Atahuallpa's presence at Cajamarca thus highlights one of the key fac- 
tors in world history: diseases transmitted to peoples lacking immunity by 
invading peoples with considerable immunity. Smallpox, measles, influ- 
enza, typhus, bubonic plague, and other infectious diseases endemic in 
Europe played a decisive role in European conquests, by decimating many 
peoples on other continents. For example, a smallpox epidemic devastated 
the Aztecs after the failure of the first Spanish attack in 1520 and killed 
Cuitlahuac, the Aztec emperor who briefly succeeded Montezuma. 


Throughout the Americas, diseases introduced with Europeans spread 
from tribe to tribe far in advance of the Europeans themselves, killing an 
estimated 95 percent of the pre-Columbian Native American population. 
The most populous and highly organized native societies of North 
America, the Mississippian chiefdoms, disappeared in that way between 
1492 and the late 1600s, even before Europeans themselves made their 
first settlement on the Mississippi River. A smallpox epidemic in 1713 was 
the biggest single step in the destruction of South Africa's native San people 
by European settlers. Soon after the British settlement of Sydney in 1788, 
the first of the epidemics that decimated Aboriginal Australians began. A 
well-documented example from Pacific islands is the epidemic that swept 
over Fiji in 1806, brought by a few European sailors who struggled ashore 
from the wreck of the ship Argo. Similar epidemics marked the histories 
of Tonga, Hawaii, and other Pacific islands. 

I do not mean to imply, however, that the role of disease in history was 
confined to paving the way for European expansion. Malaria, yellow 
fever, and other diseases of tropical Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and New 
Guinea furnished the most important obstacle to European colonization 
of those tropical areas. 

How did Pizarro come to be at Cajamarca? Why didn't Atahuallpa 
instead try to conquer Spain? Pizarro came to Cajamarca by means of 
European maritime technology, which built the ships that took him across 
the Atlantic from Spain to Panama, and then in the Pacific from Panama 
to Peru. Lacking such technology, Atahuallpa did not expand overseas out 
of South America. 

In addition to the ships themselves, Pizarro's presence depended on the 
centralized political organization that enabled Spain to finance, build, 
staff, and equip the ships. The Inca Empire also had a centralized political 
organization, but that actually worked to its disadvantage, because Pizarro 
seized the Inca chain of command intact by capturing Atahuallpa. Since 
the Inca bureaucracy was so strongly identified with its godlike absolute 
monarch, it disintegrated after Atahuallpa's death. Maritime technology 
coupled with political organization was similarly essential for European 
expansions to other continents, as well as for expansions of many other 

A related factor bringing Spaniards to Peru was the existence of writing. 
Spain possessed it, while the Inca Empire did not. Information could be 
spread far more widely, more accurately, and in more detail by writing 


than it could be transmitted by mouth. That information, coming back to 
Spain from Columbus's voyages and from Cortes's conquest of Mexico, 
sent Spaniards pouring into the New World. Letters and pamphlets sup- 
plied both the motivation and the necessary detailed sailing directions. The 
first published report of Pizarro's exploits, by his companion Captain Cris- 
tobal de Mena, was printed in Seville in April 1534, a mere nine months 
after Atahuallpa's execution. It became a best-seller, was rapidly translated 
into other European languages, and sent a further stream of Spanish colo- 
nists to tighten Pizarro's grip on Peru. 

Why did Atahuallpa walk into the trap? In hindsight, we find it aston- 
ishing that Atahuallpa marched into Pizarro's obvious trap at Cajamarca. 
The Spaniards who captured him were equally surprised at their success. 
The consequences of literacy are prominent in the ultimate explanation. 

The immediate explanation is that Atahuallpa had very little informa- 
tion about the Spaniards, their military power, and their intent. He derived 
that scant information by word of mouth, mainly from an envoy who had 
visited Pizarro's force for two days while it was en route inland from the 
coast. That envoy saw the Spaniards at their most disorganized, told Ata- 
huallpa that they were not fighting men, and that he could tie them all up 
if given 200 Indians. Understandably, it never occurred to Atahuallpa that 
the Spaniards were formidable and would attack him without provoca- 

In the New World the ability to write was confined to small elites 
among some peoples of modern Mexico and neighboring areas far to the 
north of the Inca Empire. Although the Spanish conquest of Panama, a 
mere 600 miles from the Incas' northern boundary, began already in 1510, 
no knowledge even of the Spaniards' existence appears to have reached 
the Incas until Pizarro's first landing on the Peruvian coast in 1527. Ata- 
huallpa remained entirely ignorant about Spain's conquests of Central 
America's most powerful and populous Indian societies. 

As surprising to us today as Atahuallpa's behavior leading to his capture 
is his behavior thereafter. He offered his famous ransom in the naive belief 
that, once paid off, the Spaniards would release him and depart. He had 
no way of understanding that Pizarro's men formed the spearhead of a 
force bent on permanent conquest, rather than an isolated raid. 

Atahuallpa was not alone in these fatal miscalculations. Even after Ata- 
huallpa had been captured, Francisco Pizarro's brother Hernando Pizarro 
deceived Atahuallpa's leading general, Chalcuchima, commanding a large 


army, into delivering himself to the Spaniards. Chalcuchima's miscalcula- 
tion marked a turning point in the collapse of Inca resistance, a moment 
almost as significant as the capture of Atahuallpa himself. The Aztec 
emperor Montezuma miscalculated even more grossly when he took Cor- 
tes for a returning god and admitted him and his tiny army into the Aztec 
capital of Tenochtitlan. The result was that Cortes captured Montezuma, 
then went on to conquer Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire. 

On a mundane level, the miscalculations by Atahuallpa, Chalcuchima, 
Montezuma, and countless other Native American leaders deceived by 
Europeans were due to the fact that no living inhabitants of the New 
World had been to the Old World, so of course they could have had no 
specific information about the Spaniards. Even so, we find it hard to avoid 
the conclusion that Atahuallpa "should" have been more suspicious, if 
only his society had experienced a broader range of human behavior. 
Pizarro too arrived at Cajamarca with no information about the Incas 
other than what he had learned by interrogating the Inca subjects he 
encountered in 1527 and 1531. However, while Pizarro himself happened 
to be illiterate, he belonged to a literate tradition. From books, the Span- 
iards knew of many contemporary civilizations remote from Europe, and 
about several thousand years of European history. Pizarro explicitly mod- 
eled his ambush of Atahuallpa on the successful strategy of Cortes. 

In short, literacy made the Spaniards heirs to a huge body of knowledge 
about human behavior and history. By contrast, not only did Atahuallpa 
have no conception of the Spaniards themselves, and no personal experi- 
ence of any other invaders from overseas, but he also had not even heard 
(or read) of similar threats to anyone else, anywhere else, anytime pre- 
viously in history. That gulf of experience encouraged Pizarro to set his 
trap and Atahuallpa to walk into it. 

THUS, PIZARRO S CAPTURE of Atahuallpa illustrates the set of proxi- 
mate factors that resulted in Europeans' colonizing the New World instead 
of Native Americans' colonizing Europe. Immediate reasons for Pizarro's 
success included military technology based on guns, steel weapons, and 
horses; infectious diseases endemic in Eurasia; European maritime technol- 
ogy; the centralized political organization of European states; and writing. 
The title of this book will serve as shorthand for those proximate factors, 
which also enabled modern Europeans to conquer peoples of other conti- 



nents. Long before anyone began manufacturing guns and steel, others of 
those same factors had led to the expansions of some non-European peo- 
ples, as we shall see in later chapters. 

But we are still left with the fundamental question why all those imme- 
diate advantages came to lie more with Europe than with the New World. 
Why weren't the Incas the ones to invent guns and steel swords, to be 
mounted on animals as fearsome as horses, to bear diseases to which Euro- 
pean lacked resistance, to develop oceangoing ships and advanced political 
organization, and to be able to draw on the experience of thousands of 
years of written history? Those are no longer the questions of proximate 
causation that this chapter has been discussing, but questions of ultimate 
causation that will take up the next two parts of this book. 





. tana, working for an elderly farmer named Fred Hirschy. Born in 
Switzerland, Fred had come to southwestern Montana as a teenager in the 
1890s and proceeded to develop one of the first farms in the area. At the 
time of his arrival, much of the original Native American population of 
hunter-gatherers was still living there. 

My fellow farmhands were, for the most part, tough whites whose nor- 
mal speech featured strings of curses, and who spent their weekdays work- 
ing so that they could devote their weekends to squandering their weeks 
wages in the local saloon. Among the farmhands, though, was a member 
of the Blackfoot Indian tribe named Levi, who behaved very differently 
from the coarse miners — being polite, gentle, responsible, sober, and well 
spoken. He was the first Indian with whom I had spent much time, and I 
came to admire him. 

It was therefore a shocking disappointment to me when, one Sunday 
morning, Levi too staggered in drunk and cursing after a Saturday-night 
binge. Among his curses, one has stood out in my memory: "Damn you, 
Fred Hirschy, and damn the ship that brought you from Switzerland!" It 
poignantly brought home to me the Indians' perspective on what I, like 
other white schoolchildren, had been taught to view as the heroic conquest 


of the American West. Fred Hirschy's family was proud of him, as a pio- 
neer farmer who had succeeded under difficult conditions. But Levi's tribe 
of hunters and famous warriors had been robbed of its lands by the immi- 
grant white farmers. How did the farmers win out over the famous war- 

For most of the time since the ancestors of modern humans diverged 
from the ancestors of the living great apes, around 7 million years ago, all 
humans on Earth fed themselves exclusively by hunting wild animals and 
gathering wild plants, as the Blackfeet still did in the 19th century. It was 
only within the last 11,000 years that some peoples turned to what is 
termed food production: that is, domesticating wild animals and plants 
and eating the resulting livestock and crops. Today, most people on Earth 
consume food that they produced themselves or that someone else pro- 
duced for them. At current rates of change, within the next decade the few 
remaining bands of hunter-gatherers will abandon their ways, disintegrate, 
or die out, thereby ending our millions of years of commitment to the 
hunter-gatherer lifestyle. 

Different peoples acquired food production at different times in prehis- 
tory. Some, such as Aboriginal Australians, never acquired it at all. Of 
those who did, some (for example, the ancient Chinese) developed it inde- 
pendently by themselves, while others (including ancient Egyptians) 
acquired it from neighbors. But, as we'll see, food production was indi- 
rectly a prerequisite for the development of guns, germs, and steel. Hence 
geographic variation in whether, or when, the peoples of different conti- 
nents became farmers and herders explains to a large extent their subse- 
quent contrasting fates. Before we devote the next six chapters to 
understanding how geographic differences in food production arose, this 
chapter will trace the main connections through which food production 
led to all the advantages that enabled Pizarro to capture Atahuallpa, and 
Fred Hirschy's people to dispossess Levi's (Figure 4.1). 

The first connection is the most direct one: availability of more consum- 

Figure 4.1. Schematic overview of the chains of causation leading up to 
proximate factors (such as guns, horses, and diseases) enabling some peo- 
ples to conquer other peoples, from ultimate factors (such as the orienta- 
tion of continental axes). For example, diverse epidemic diseases of 
humans evolved in areas with many wild plant and animal species suit- 
able for domestication, partly because the resulting crops and livestock 

Factors Underlying the Broadest Pattern of History 




east/west axis 






ease of species 

many domesticated plant 
and animal species 

food surpluses, 
food storage 

r - 


la ■» 

large, dense, sedentary, 
stratified societies 



horses guns, ocean- political 

steel going organization, 
swords ships writing 


helped feed dense societies in which epidemics could maintain them- 
selves, and partly because the diseases evolved from germs of the domes- 
tic animals themselves. 


able calories means more people. Among wild plant and animal species, 
only a small minority are edible to humans or worth hunting or gathering. 
Most species are useless to us as food, for one or more of the following 
reasons: they are indigestible (like bark), poisonous (monarch butterflies 
and death-cap mushrooms), low in nutritional value (jellyfish), tedious to 
prepare (very small nuts), difficult to gather (larvae of most insects), or 
dangerous to hunt (rhinoceroses). Most biomass (living biological matter) 
on land is in the form of wood and leaves, most of which we cannot digest. 

By selecting and growing those few species of plants and animals that 
we can eat, so that they constitute 90 percent rather than 0.1 percent of 
the biomass on an acre of land, we obtain far more edible calories per 
acre. As a result, one acre can feed many more herders and farmers — 
typically, 10 to 100 times more — than hunter-gatherers. That strength of 
brute numbers was the first of many military advantages that food-produc- 
ing tribes gained over hunter-gatherer tribes. 

In human societies possessing domestic animals, livestock fed more peo- 
ple in four distinct ways: by furnishing meat, milk, and fertilizer and by 
pulling plows. First and most directly, domestic animals became the socie- 
ties' major source of animal protein, replacing wild game. Today, for 
instance, Americans tend to get most of their animal protein from cows, 
pigs, sheep, and chickens, with game such as venison just a rare delicacy. 
In addition, some big domestic mammals served as sources of milk and of 
milk products such as butter, cheese, and yogurt. Milked mammals include 
the cow, sheep, goat, horse, reindeer, water buffalo, yak, and Arabian and 
Bactrian camels. Those mammals thereby yield several times more calories 
over their lifetime than if they were just slaughtered and consumed as 

Big domestic mammals also interacted with domestic plants in two 
ways to increase crop production. First, as any modern gardener or farmer 
still knows by experience, crop yields can be greatly increased by manure 
applied as fertilizer. Even with the modern availability of synthetic fertiliz- 
ers produced by chemical factories, the major source of crop fertilizer 
today in most societies is still animal manure — especially of cows, but also 
of yaks and sheep. Manure has been valuable, too, as a source of fuel for 
fires in traditional societies. 

In addition, the largest domestic mammals interacted with domestic 
plants to increase food production by pulling plows and thereby making 
it possible for people to till land that had previously been uneconomical 
for farming. Those plow animals were the cow, horse, water buffalo, Bali 


cattle, and yak /cow hybrids. Here is one example of their value: the first 
prehistoric farmers of central Europe, the so-called Linearbandkeramik 
culture that arose slightly before 5000 B.C., were initially confined to soils 
light enough to be tilled by means of hand-held digging sticks. Only over 
a thousand years later, with the introduction of the ox-drawn plow, were 
those farmers able to extend cultivation to a much wider range of heavy 
soils and tough sods. Similarly, Native American farmers of the North 
American Great Plains grew crops in the river valleys, but farming of the 
tough sods on the extensive uplands had to await 19th-century Europeans 
and their animal-drawn plows. 

All those are direct ways in which plant and animal domestication led 
to denser human populations by yielding more food than did the hunter- 
gatherer lifestyle. A more indirect way involved the consequences of the 
sedentary lifestyle enforced by food production. People of many hunter- 
gatherer societies move frequently in search of wild foods, but farmers 
must remain near their fields and orchards. The resulting fixed abode con- 
tributes to denser human populations by permitting a shortened birth 
interval. A hunter-gatherer mother who is shifting camp can carry only 
one child, along with her few possessions. She cannot afford to bear her 
next child until the previous toddler can walk fast enough to keep up with 
the tribe and not hold it back. In practice, nomadic hunter-gatherers space 
their children about four years apart by means of lactational amenorrhea, 
sexual abstinence, infanticide, and abortion. By contrast, sedentary peo- 
ple, unconstrained by problems of carrying young children on treks, can 
bear and raise as many children as they can feed. The birth interval for 
many farm peoples is around two years, half that of hunter-gatherers. That 
higher birthrate of food producers, together with their ability to feed more 
people per acre, lets them achieve much higher population densities than 

A separate consequence of a settled existence is that it permits one to 
store food surpluses, since storage would be pointless if one didn't remain 
nearby to guard the stored food. While some nomadic hunter-gatherers 
may occasionally bag more food than they can consume in a few days, 
such a bonanza is of little use to them because they cannot protect it. 
But stored food is essential for feeding non-food-producing specialists, and 
certainly for supporting whole towns of them. Hence nomadic hunter- 
gatherer societies have few or no such full-time specialists, who instead 
first appear in sedentary societies. 

Two types of such specialists are kings and bureaucrats. Hunter-gath- 


erer societies tend to be relatively egalitarian, to lack full-time bureaucrats 
and hereditary chiefs, and to have small-scale political organization at the 
level of the band or tribe. That's because all able-bodied hunter-gatherers 
are obliged to devote much of their time to acquiring food. In contrast, 
once food can be stockpiled, a political elite can gain control of food pro- 
duced by others, assert the right of taxation, escape the need to feed itself, 
and engage full-time in political activities. Hence moderate-sized agricul- 
tural societies are often organized in chiefdoms, and kingdoms are con- 
fined to large agricultural societies. Those complex political units are much 
better able to mount a sustained war of conquest than is an egalitarian 
band of hunters. Some hunter-gatherers in especially rich environments, 
such as the Pacific Northwest coast of North America and the coast of 
Ecuador, also developed sedentary societies, food storage, and nascent 
chiefdoms, but they did not go farther on the road to kingdoms. 

A stored food surplus built up by taxation can support other full-time 
specialists besides kings and bureaucrats. Of most direct relevance to wars 
of conquest, it can be used to feed professional soldiers. That was the 
decisive factor in the British Empire's eventual defeat of New Zealand's 
well-armed indigenous Maori population. While the Maori achieved some 
stunning temporary victories, they could not maintain an army constantly 
in the field and were in the end worn down by 18,000 full-time British 
troops. Stored food can also feed priests, who provide religious justifica- 
tion for wars of conquest; artisans such as metalworkers, who develop 
swords, guns, and other technologies; and scribes, who preserve far more 
information than can be remembered accurately. 

So far, I've emphasized direct and indirect values of crops and livestock 
as food. However, they have other uses, such as keeping us warm and 
providing us with valuable materials. Crops and livestock yield natural 
fibers for making clothing, blankets, nets, and rope. Most of the major 
centers of plant domestication evolved not only food crops but also fiber 
crops — notably cotton, flax (the source of linen), and hemp. Several 
domestic animals yielded animal fibers — especially wool from sheep, 
goats, llamas, and alpacas, and silk from silkworms. Bones of domestic 
animals were important raw materials for artifacts of Neolithic peoples 
before the development of metallurgy. Cow hides were used to make 
leather. One of the earliest cultivated plants in many parts of the Americas 
was grown for nonfood purposes: the bottle gourd, used as a container. 

Big domestic mammals further revolutionized human society by becom- 


ing our main means of land transport until the development of railroads 
in the 19th century. Before animal domestication, the sole means of trans- 
porting goods and people by land was on the backs of humans. Large 
mammals changed that: for the first time in human history, it became pos- 
sible to move heavy goods in large quantities, as well as people, rapidly 
overland for long distances. The domestic animals that were ridden were 
the horse, donkey, yak, reindeer, and Arabian and Bactrian camels. Ani- 
mals of those same five species, as well as the llama, were used to bear 
packs. Cows and horses were hitched to wagons, while reindeer and dogs 
pulled sleds in the Arctic. The horse became the chief means of long-dis- 
tance transport over most of Eurasia. The three domestic camel species 
(Arabian camel, Bactrian camel, and llama) played a similar role in areas 
of North Africa and Arabia, Central Asia, and the Andes, respectively. 

The most direct contribution of plant and animal domestication to wars 
of conquest was from Eurasia's horses, whose military role made them the 
jeeps and Sherman tanks of ancient warfare on that continent. As I men- 
tioned in Chapter 3, they enabled Cortes and Pizarro, leading only small 
bands of adventurers, to overthrow the Aztec and Inca Empires. Even 
much earlier (around 4000 B.C.), at a time when horses were still ridden 
bareback, they may have been the essential military ingredient behind the 
westward expansion of speakers of Indo-European languages from the 
Ukraine. Those languages eventually replaced all earlier western European 
languages except Basque. When horses later were yoked to wagons and 
other vehicles, horse-drawn battle chariots (invented around 1800 B.C.) 
proceeded to revolutionize warfare in the Near East, the Mediterranean 
region, and China. For example, in 1674 B.C., horses even enabled a for- 
eign people, the Hyksos, to conquer then horseless Egypt and to establish 
themselves temporarily as pharaohs. 

Still later, after the invention of saddles and stirrups, horses allowed the 
Huns and successive waves of other peoples from the Asian steppes to 
terrorize the Roman Empire and its successor states, culminating in the 
Mongol conquests of much of Asia and Russia in the 13th and 14th centu- 
ries A.D. Only with the introduction of trucks and tanks in World War I did 
horses finally become supplanted as the main assault vehicle and means of 
fast transport in war. Arabian and Bactrian camels played a similar mili- 
tary role within their geographic range. In all these examples, peoples with 
domestic horses (or camels), or with improved means of using them, 
enjoyed an enormous military advantage over those without them. 


Of equal importance in wars of conquest were the germs that evolved in 
human societies with domestic animals. Infectious diseases like smallpox, 
measles, and flu arose as specialized germs of humans, derived by muta- 
tions of very similar ancestral germs that had infected animals (Chapter 
11). The humans who domesticated animals were the first to fall victim 
to the newly evolved germs, but those humans then evolved substantial 
resistance to the new diseases. When such partly immune people came 
into contact with others who had had no previous exposure to the germs, 
epidemics resulted in which up to 99 percent of the previously unexposed 
population was killed. Germs thus acquired ultimately from domestic ani- 
mals played decisive roles in the European conquests of Native Americans, 
Australians, South Africans, and Pacific islanders. 

In short, plant and animal domestication meant much more food and 
hence much denser human populations. The resulting food surpluses, and 
(in some areas) the animal-based means of transporting those surpluses, 
were a prerequisite for the development of settled, politically centralized, 
socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative socie- 
ties. Hence the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately 
explains why empires, literacy, and steel weapons developed earliest in 
Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents. The military uses of 
horses and camels, and the killing power of animal-derived germs, com- 
plete the list of major links between food production and conquest that 
we shall be exploring. 



conflicts between the haves and the have-nots: between peoples 
with farmer power and those without it, or between those who acquired 
it at different times. It should come as no surprise that food production 
never arose in large areas of the globe, for ecological reasons that still 
make it difficult or impossible there today. For instance, neither farming 
nor herding developed in prehistoric times in North America's Arctic, 
while the sole element of food production to arise in Eurasia's Arctic was 
reindeer herding. Nor could food production spring up spontaneously in 
deserts remote from sources of water for irrigation, such as central Austra- 
lia and parts of the western United States. 

Instead, what cries out for explanation is the failure of food production 
to appear, until modern times, in some ecologically very suitable areas that 
are among the world's richest centers of agriculture and herding today. 
Foremost among these puzzling areas, where indigenous peoples were still 
hunter-gatherers when European colonists arrived, were California and 
the other Pacific states of the United States, the Argentine pampas, south- 
western and southeastern Australia, and much of the Cape region of South 
Africa. Had we surveyed the world in 4000 B.C., thousands of years after 
the rise of food production in its oldest sites of origin, we would have been 


surprised too at several other modern breadbaskets that were still then 
without it — including all the rest of the United States, England and much 
of France, Indonesia, and all of subequatorial Africa. When we trace food 
production back to its beginnings, the earliest sites provide another sur- 
prise. Far from being modern breadbaskets, they include areas ranking 
today as somewhat dry or ecologically degraded: Iraq and Iran, Mexico, 
the Andes, parts of China, and Africa's Sahel zone. Why did food produc- 
tion develop first in these seemingly rather marginal lands, and only later 
in today's most fertile farmlands and pastures? 

Geographic differences in the means by which food production arose 
are also puzzling. In a few places it developed independently, as a result of 
local people domesticating local plants and animals. In most other places 
it was instead imported, in the form of crops and livestock that had been 
domesticated elsewhere. Since those areas of nonindependent origins were 
suitable for prehistoric food production as soon as domesticates had 
arrived, why did the peoples of those areas not become farmers and herd- 
ers without outside assistance, by domesticating local plants and animals? 

Among those regions where food production did spring up indepen- 
dently, why did the times at which it appeared vary so greatly — for exam- 
ple, thousands of years earlier in eastern Asia than in the eastern United 
States and never in eastern Australia? Among those regions into which it 
was imported in the prehistoric era, why did the date of arrival also vary 
so greatly — for example, thousands of years earlier in southwestern 
Europe than in the southwestern United States? Again among those 
regions where it was imported, why in some areas (such as the southwest- 
ern United States) did local hunter-gatherers themselves adopt crops and 
livestock from neighbors and survive as farmers, while in other areas (such 
as Indonesia and much of subequatorial Africa) the importation of food 
production involved a cataclysmic replacement of the region's original 
hunter-gatherers by invading food producers? All these questions involve 
developments that determined which peoples became history's have-nots, 
and which became its haves. 

BEFORE WE CAN hope to answer these questions, we need to figure out 
how to identify areas where food production originated, when it arose 
there, and where and when a given crop or animal was first domesticated. 
The most unequivocal evidence comes from identification of plant and 



animal remains at archaeological sites. Most domesticated plant and ani- 
mal species differ morphologically from their wild ancestors: for example, 
in the smaller size of domestic cattle and sheep, the larger size of domestic 
chickens and apples, the thinner and smoother seed coats of domestic peas, 
and the corkscrew-twisted rather than scimitar-shaped horns of domestic 
goats. Hence remains of domesticated plants and animals at a dated 
archaeological site can be recognized and provide strong evidence of food 
production at that place and time, whereas finding the remains only of 
wild species at a site fails to provide evidence of food production and is 
compatible with hunting-gathering. Naturally, food producers, especially 
early ones, continued to gather some wild plants and hunt wild animals, 
so the food remains at their sites often include wild species as well as 
domesticated ones. 

Archaeologists date food production by radiocarbon dating of carbon- 
containing materials at the site. This method is based on the slow decay of 
radioactive carbon 14, a very minor component of carbon, the ubiquitous 
building block of life, into the nonradioactive isotope nitrogen 14. Carbon 
14 is continually being generated in the atmosphere by cosmic rays. Plants 
take up atmospheric carbon, which has a known and approximately con- 
stant ratio of carbon 14 to the prevalent isotope carbon 12 (a ratio of 
about one to a million). That plant carbon goes on to form the body of 
the herbivorous animals that eat the plants, and of the carnivorous animals 
that eat those herbivorous animals. Once the plant or animal dies, though, 
half of its carbon 14 content decays into carbon 12 every 5,700 years, until 
after about 40,000 years the carbon 14 content is very low and difficult to 
measure or to distinguish from contamination with small amounts of mod- 
ern materials containing carbon 14. Hence the age of material from an 
archaeological site can be calculated from the material's carbon 14/car- 
bon 12 ratio. 

Radiocarbon is plagued by numerous technical problems, of which two 
deserve mention here. One is that radiocarbon dating until the 1980s 
required relatively large amounts of carbon (a few grams), much more 
than the amount in small seeds or bones. Hence scientists instead often 
had to resort to dating material recovered nearby at the same site and 
believed to be "associated with" the food remains — that is, to have been 
deposited simultaneously by the people who left the food. A typical choice 
of "associated" material is charcoal from fires. 

But archaeological sites are not always neatly sealed time capsules of 

9 6 


materials all deposited on the same day. Materials deposited at different 
times can get mixed together, as worms and rodents and other agents 
churn up the ground. Charcoal residues from a fire can thereby end up 
close to the remains of a plant or animal that died and was eaten thousands 
of years earlier or later. Increasingly today, archaeologists are circum- 
venting this problem by a new technique termed accelerator mass spec- 
trometry, which permits radiocarbon dating of tiny samples and thus lets 
one directly date a single small seed, small bone, or other food residue. In 
some cases big differences have been found between recent radiocarbon 
dates based on the direct new methods (which have their own problems) 
and those based on the indirect older ones. Among the resulting controver- 
sies remaining unresolved, perhaps the most important for the purposes of 
this book concerns the date when food production originated in the Amer- 
icas: indirect methods of the 1960s and 1970s yielded dates as early as 
7000 B.C., but more recent direct dating has been yielding dates no earlier 

A second problem in radiocarbon dating is that the carbon 14 /carbon 
12 ratio of the atmosphere is in fact not rigidly constant but fluctuates 
slightly with time, so calculations of radiocarbon dates based on the 
assumption of a constant ratio are subject to small systematic errors. The 
magnitude of this error for each past date can in principle be determined 
with the help of long-lived trees laying down annual growth rings, since 
the rings can be counted up to obtain an absolute calendar date in the past 
for each ring, and a carbon sample of wood dated in this manner can 
then be analyzed for its carbon 14 / carbon 12 ratio. In this way, measured 
radiocarbon dates can be "calibrated" to take account of fluctuations in 
the atmospheric carbon ratio. The effect of this correction is that, for mate- 
rials with apparent (that is, uncalibrated) dates between about 1000 and 
6000 B.C., the true (calibrated) date is between a few centuries and a thou- 
sand years earlier. Somewhat older samples have more recently begun to 
be calibrated by an alternative method based on another radioactive decay 
process and yielding the conclusion that samples apparently dating to 
about 9000 B.C. actually date to around 11,000 B.C. 

Archaeologists often distinguish calibrated from uncalibrated dates by 
writing the former in upper-case letters and the latter in lower-case letters 
(for example, 3000 B.C. vs. 3000 b.c, respectively). However, the archaeo- 
logical literature can be confusing in this respect, because many books and 
papers report uncalibrated dates as B.C. and fail to mention that they are 


9 7 

actually uncalibrated. The dates that I report in this book for events within 
the last 15,000 years are calibrated dates. That accounts for some of the 
discrepancies that readers may note between this book's dates and those 
quoted in some standard reference books on early food production. 

Once one has recognized and dated ancient remains of domestic plants 
or animals, how does one decide whether the plant or animal was actually 
domesticated in the vicinity of that site itself, rather than domesticated 
elsewhere and then spread to the site? One method is to examine a map of 
the geographic distribution of the crop's or animal's wild ancestor, and to 
reason that domestication must have taken place in the area where the 
wild ancestor occurs. For example, chickpeas are widely grown by tradi- 
tional farmers from the Mediterranean and Ethiopia east to India, with 
the latter country accounting for 80 percent of the world's chickpea pro- 
duction today. One might therefore have been deceived into supposing that 
chickpeas were domesticated in India. But it turns out that ancestral wild 
chickpeas occur only in southeastern Turkey. The interpretation that 
chickpeas were actually domesticated there is supported by the fact that 
the oldest finds of possibly domesticated chickpeas in Neolithic archaeo- 
logical sites come from southeastern Turkey and nearby northern Syria 
that date to around 8000 B.C.; not until over 5,000 years later does archae- 
ological evidence of chickpeas appear on the Indian subcontinent. 

A second method for identifying a crop's or animal's site of domestica- 
tion is to plot on a map the dates of the domesticated form's first appear- 
ance at each locality. The site where it appeared earliest may be its site of 
initial domestication — especially if the wild ancestor also occurred there, 
and if the dates of first appearance at other sites become progressively 
earlier with increasing distance from the putative site of initial domestica- 
tion, suggesting spread to those other sites. For instance, the earliest 
known cultivated emmer wheat comes from the Fertile Crescent around 
•8500 B.C. Soon thereafter, the crop appears progressively farther west, 
reaching Greece around 6500 B.C. and Germany around 5000 B.C. Those 
dates suggest domestication of emmer wheat in the Fertile Crescent, a con- 
clusion supported by the fact that ancestral wild emmer wheat is confined 
to the area extending from Israel to western Iran and Turkey. 

However, as we shall see, complications arise in many cases where the 
Same plant or animal was domesticated independently at several different 
Sites. Such cases can often be detected by analyzing the resulting morpho- 
logical, genetic, or chromosomal differences between specimens of the 


same crop or domestic animal in different areas. For instance, India's zebu 
breeds of domestic cattle possess humps lacking in western Eurasian cattle 
breeds, and genetic analyses show that the ancestors of modern Indian 
and western Eurasian cattle breeds diverged from each other hundreds of 
thousands of years ago, long before any animals were domesticated any- 
where. That is, cattle were domesticated independently in India and west- 
ern Eurasia, within the last 10,000 years, starting with wild Indian and 
western Eurasian cattle subspecies that had diverged hundreds of thou- 
sands of years earlier. 

LET S NOW RETURN to our earlier questions about the rise of food pro- 
duction. Where, when, and how did food production develop in different 
parts of the globe? 

At one extreme are areas in which food production arose altogether 
independently, with the domestication of many indigenous crops (and, in 
some cases, animals) before the arrival of any crops or animals from other 
areas. There are only five such areas for which the evidence is at present 
detailed and compelling: Southwest Asia, also known as the Near East 
or Fertile Crescent; China; Mesoamerica (the term applied to central and 
southern Mexico and adjacent areas of Central America); the Andes of 
South America, and possibly the adjacent Amazon Basin as well; and the 
eastern United States (Figure 5.1). Some or all of these centers may actually 
comprise several nearby centers where food production arose more or less 
independently, such as North China's Yellow River valley and South Chi- 
na's Yangtze River valley. 

In addition to these five areas where food production definitely arose 
de novo, four others — Africa's Sahel zone, tropical West Africa, Ethiopia, 
and New Guinea — are candidates for that distinction. However, there is 
some uncertainty in each case. Although indigenous wild plants were 
undoubtedly domesticated in Africa's Sahel zone just south of the Sahara, 
cattle herding may have preceded agriculture there, and it is not yet certain 
whether those were independently domesticated Sahel cattle or, instead, 
domestic cattle of Fertile Crescent origin whose arrival triggered local 
plant domestication. It remains similarly uncertain whether the arrival of 
those Sahel crops then triggered the undoubted local domestication of 
indigenous wild plants in tropical West Africa, and whether the arrival of 
Southwest Asian crops is what triggered the local domestication of indige- 


Figure 5.1. Centers of origin of food production. A question mark indi- 
cates some uncertainty whether the rise of food production at that center 
was really uninfluenced by the spread of food production from other cen- 
ters, or ( in the case of New Guinea) what the earliest crops were. 

nous wild plants in Ethiopia. As for New Guinea, archaeological studies 
there have provided evidence of early agriculture well before food produc- 
tion in any adjacent areas, but the crops grown have not been definitely 

Table 5.1 summarizes, for these and other areas of local domestication, 
some of the best-known crops and animals and the earliest known dates 
of domestication. Among these nine candidate areas for the independent 
evolution of food production, Southwest Asia has the earliest definite dates 
for both plant domestication (around 8500 B.C.) and animal domestica- 
tion (around 8000 B.C.); it also has by far the largest number of accurate 
radiocarbon dates for early food production. Dates for China are nearly 
as early, while dates for the eastern United States are clearly about 6,000 
years later. For the other six candidate areas, the earliest well-established 
dates do not rival those for Southwest Asia, but too few early sites have 
been securely dated in those six other areas for us to be certain that they 
really lagged behind Southwest Asia and (if so) by how much. 

The next group of areas consists of ones that did domesticate at least a 



table 5.1 Examples of Species Domesticated in Each Area 





Date of 

Independent Origins of 

1. Southwest Asia 

2. China 

3. Mesoamerica 

4. Andes and 

5. Eastern United 

? 6. Sahel 

? 7. Tropical West 

? 8. Ethiopia 
? 9. New Guinea 

wheat, pea, olive 
rice, millet 
corn, beans, 

potato, manioc 


sorghum, Afri- 
can rice 

African yams, 
oil palm 

coffee, teff 

sugar cane, 

sheep, goat 
pig, silkworm 

llama, guinea 


guinea fowl 



Local Domestication Following Arrival of Founder Crops from 

10. Western Europe poppy, oat none 

11. Indus Valley sesame, eggplant humped cattle 

12. Egypt sycamore fig, donkey, cat 


8500 B.C. 
by 7500 B.C. 
by 3500 B.C. 

by 3500 B.C. 

2500 B.C. 

by 5000 b.c. 

by 3000 B.C. 


7000 b.c? 

6000-3500 B.C. 
7000 b.c. 
6000 b.c. 

couple of local plants or animals, but where food production depended 
mainly on crops and animals that were domesticated elsewhere. Those 
imported domesticates may be thought of as "founder" crops and animals, 
because they founded local food production. The arrival of founder 
domesticates enabled local people to become sedentary, and thereby 
increased the likelihood of local crops' evolving from wild plants that were 
gathered, brought home and planted accidentally, and later planted inten- 


In three or four such areas, the arriving founder package came from 
Southwest Asia. One of them is western and central Europe, where food 
production arose with the arrival of Southwest Asian crops and animals 
between 6000 and 3500 B.C., but at least one plant (the poppy, and proba- 
bly oats and some others) was then domesticated locally. Wild poppies are 
confined to coastal areas of the western Mediterranean. Poppy seeds are 
absent from excavated sites of the earliest farming communities in eastern 
Europe and Southwest Asia; they first appear in early farming sites in west- 
ern Europe. In contrast, the wild ancestors of most Southwest Asian crops 
and animals were absent from western Europe. Thus, it seems clear that 
food production did not evolve independently in western Europe. Instead, 
it was triggered there by the arrival of Southwest Asian domesticates. The 
resulting western European farming societies domesticated the poppy, 
which subsequently spread eastward as a crop. 

Another area where local domestication appears to have followed the 
arrival of Southwest Asian founder crops is the Indus Valley region of the 
Indian subcontinent. The earliest farming communities there in the seventh 
millennium B.C. utilized wheat, barley, and other crops that had been pre- 
viously domesticated in the Fertile Crescent and that evidently spread to 
the Indus Valley through Iran. Only later did domesticates derived from 
indigenous species of the Indian subcontinent, such as humped cattle and 
sesame, appear in Indus Valley farming communities. In Egypt as well, 
food production began in the sixth millennium B.C. with the arrival of 
Southwest Asian crops. Egyptians then domesticated the sycamore fig and 
a local vegetable called chufa. 

The same pattern perhaps applies to Ethiopia, where wheat, barley, and 
other Southwest Asian crops have been cultivated for a long time. Ethiopi- 
ans also domesticated many locally available wild species to obtain crops 
most of which are still confined to Ethiopia, but one of them (the coffee 
bean) has now spread around the world. However, it is not yet known 
whether Ethiopians were cultivating these local plants before or only after 
the arrival of the Southwest Asian package. 

In these and other areas where food production depended on the arrival 
of founder crops from elsewhere, did local hunter-gatherers themselves 
adopt those founder crops from neighboring farming peoples and thereby 
become farmers themselves? Or was the founder package instead brought 
by invading farmers, who were thereby enabled to outbreed the local hunt- 
ers and to kill, displace, or outnumber them? 


In Egypt it seems likely that the former happened: local hunter-gather- 
ers simply added Southwest Asian domesticates and farming and herding 
techniques to their own diet of wild plants and animals, then gradually 
phased out the wild foods. That is, what arrived to launch food production 
in Egypt was foreign crops and animals, not foreign peoples. The same 
may have been true on the Atlantic coast of Europe, where local hunter- 
gatherers apparently adopted Southwest Asian sheep and cereals over the 
course of many centuries. In the Cape of South Africa the local Khoi 
hunter-gatherers became herders (but not farmers) by acquiring sheep and 
cows from farther north in Africa (and ultimately from Southwest Asia). 
Similarly, Native American hunter-gatherers of the U.S. Southwest gradu- 
ally became farmers by acquiring Mexican crops. In these four areas the 
onset of food production provides little or no evidence for the domestica- 
tion of local plant or animal species, but also little or no evidence for the 
replacement of human population. 

At the opposite extreme are regions in which food production certainly 
began with an abrupt arrival of foreign people as well as of foreign crops 
and animals. The reason why we can be certain is that the arrivals took 
place in modern times and involved literate Europeans, who described in 
innumerable books what happened. Those areas include California, the 
Pacific Northwest of North America, the Argentine pampas, Australia, 
and Siberia. Until recent centuries, these areas were still occupied by 
hunter-gatherers — Native Americans in the first three cases and Aboriginal 
Australians or Native Siberians in the last two. Those hunter-gatherers 
were killed, infected, driven out, or largely replaced by arriving European 
farmers and herders who brought their own crops and did not domesticate 
any local wild species after their arrival (except for macadamia nuts in 
Australia). In the Cape of South Africa the arriving Europeans found not 
only Khoi hunter-gatherers but also Khoi herders who already possessed 
only domestic animals, not crops. The result was again the start of fanning 
dependent on crops from elsewhere, a failure to domesticate local species, 
and a massive modern replacement of human population. 

Finally, the same pattern of an abrupt start of food production depen- 
dent on domesticates from elsewhere, and an abrupt and massive popula- 
tion replacement, seems to have repeated itself in many areas in the 
prehistoric era. In the absence of written records, the evidence of those 
prehistoric replacements must be sought in the archaeological record or 
inferred from linguistic evidence. The best-attested cases are ones in which 


• 103 

there can be no doubt about population replacement because the newly 
arriving food producers differed markedly in their skeletons from the 
hunter-gatherers whom they replaced, and because the food producers 
introduced not only crops and animals but also pottery. Later chapters will 
describe the two clearest such examples: the Austronesian expansion from 
South China into the Philippines and Indonesia (Chapter 17), and the 
Bantu expansion over subequatorial Africa (Chapter 19). 

Southeastern Europe and central Europe present a similar picture of an 
abrupt onset of food production (dependent on Southwest Asian crops 
and animals) and of pottery making. This onset too probably involved 
replacement of old Greeks and Germans by new Greeks and Germans, just 
as old gave way to new in the Philippines, Indonesia, and subequatorial 
Africa. However, the skeletal differences between the earlier hunter-gath- 
erers and the farmers who replaced them are less marked in Europe than 
in the Philippines, Indonesia, and subequatorial Africa. Hence the case for 
population replacement in Europe is less strong or less direct. 

IN SHORT, ONLY a few areas of the world developed food production 
independently, and they did so at widely differing times. From those 
nuclear areas, hunter-gatherers of some neighboring areas learned food 
production, and peoples of other neighboring areas were replaced by 
invading food producers from the nuclear areas — again at widely differing 
times. Finally, peoples of some areas ecologically suitable for food produc- 
tion neither evolved nor acquired agriculture in prehistoric times at all; 
they persisted as hunter-gatherers until the modern world finally swept 
upon them. The peoples of areas with a head start on food production 
thereby gained a head start on the path leading toward guns, germs, and 
steel. The result was a long series of collisions between the haves and the 
have-nots of history. 

How can we explain these geographic differences in the times and 
modes of onset of food production? That question, one of the most 
important problems of prehistory, will be the subject of the next five chap- 



ers. Why did any of them adopt food production at all? Given that 
they must have had some reason, why did they do so around 8500 B.C. in 
Mediterranean habitats of the Fertile Crescent, only 3,000 years later in 
the climatically and structurally similar Mediterranean habitats of south- 
western Europe, and never indigenously in the similar Mediterranean hab- 
itats of California, southwestern Australia, and the Cape of South Africa? 
Why did even people of the Fertile Crescent wait until 8500 B.C., instead 
of becoming food producers already around 18,500 or 28,500 B.C.? 

From our modern perspective, all these questions at first seem silly, 
because the drawbacks of being a hunter-gatherer appear so obvious. Sci- 
entists used to quote a phrase of Thomas Hobbes's in order to characterize 
the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers as "nasty, brutish, and short." They 
seemed to have to work hard, to be driven by the daily quest for food, 
often to be close to starvation, to lack such elementary material comforts 
as soft beds and adequate clothing, and to die young. 

In reality, only for today's affluent First World citizens, who don't actu- 
ally do the work of raising food themselves, does food production (by 
remote agribusinesses) mean less physical work, more comfort, freedom 
from starvation, and a longer expected lifetime. Most peasant farmers and 


herders, who constitute the great majority of the world's actual food pro- 
ducers, aren't necessarily better off than hunter-gatherers. Time budget 
studies show that they may spend more rather than fewer hours per day 
at work than hunter-gatherers do. Archaeologists have demonstrated that 
the first farmers in many areas were smaller and less well nourished, suf- 
fered from more serious diseases, and died on the average at a younger age 
than the hunter-gatherers they replaced. If those first farmers could have 
foreseen the consequences of adopting food production, they might not 
have opted to do so. Why, unable to foresee the result, did they neverthe- 
less make that choice? 

There exist many actual cases of hunter-gatherers who did see food 
production practiced by their neighbors, and who nevertheless refused to 
accept its supposed blessings and instead remained hunter-gatherers. For 
instance, Aboriginal hunter-gatherers of northeastern Australia traded for 
thousands of years with farmers of the Torres Strait Islands, between Aus- 
tralia and New Guinea. California Native American hunter-gatherers 
traded with Native American farmers in the Colorado River valley. In 
addition, Khoi herders west of the Fish River of South Africa traded with 
Bantu farmers east of the Fish River, and continued to dispense with farm- 
ing themselves. Why? 

Still other hunter-gatherers in contact with farmers did eventually 
become farmers, but only after what may seem to us like an inordinately 
long delay. For example, the coastal peoples of northern Germany did not 
adopt food production until 1,300 years after peoples of the Linearband- 
keramik culture introduced it to inland parts of Germany only 125 miles 
to the south. Why did those coastal Germans wait so long, and what led 
them finally to change their minds? 

BEFORE WE CAN answer these questions, we must dispel some miscon- 
ceptions about the origins of food production and then reformulate the 
question. What actually happened was not a discovery of food production, 
nor an invention, as we might first assume. There was often not even a 
conscious choice between food production and hunting-gathering. Spe- 
cifically, in each area of the globe the first people who adopted food pro- 
duction could obviously not have been making a conscious choice or 
consciously striving toward farming as a goal, because they had never seen 
farming and had no way of knowing what it would be like. Instead, as we 


shall see, food production evolved as a by-product of decisions made with- 
out awareness of their consequences. Hence the question that we have to 
ask is why food production did evolve, why it evolved in some places but 
not others, why at different times in different places, and why not instead 
at some earlier or later date. 

Another misconception is that there is necessarily a sharp divide 
between nomadic hunter-gatherers and sedentary food producers. In real- 
ity, although we frequently draw such a contrast, hunter-gatherers in some 
productive areas, including North America's Pacific Northwest coast and 
possibly southeastern Australia, became sedentary but never became food 
producers. Other hunter-gatherers, in Palestine, coastal Peru, and Japan, 
became sedentary first and adopted food production much later. Sedentary 
groups probably made up a much higher fraction of hunter-gatherers 
15,000 years ago, when all inhabited parts of the world (including the 
most productive areas) were still occupied by hunter-gatherers, than they 
do today, when the few remaining hunter-gatherers survive only in unpro- 
ductive areas where nomadism is the sole option. 

Conversely, there are mobile groups of food producers. Some modern 
nomads of New Guinea's Lakes Plains make clearings in the jungle, plant 
bananas and papayas, go off for a few months to live again as hunter- 
gatherers, return to check on their crops, weed the garden if they find the 
crops growing, set off again to hunt, return months later to check again, 
and settle down for a while to harvest and eat if their garden has produced. 
Apache Indians of the southwestern United States settled down to farm in 
the summer at higher elevations and toward the north, then withdrew to 
the south and to lower elevations to wander in search of wild foods during 
the winter. Many herding peoples of Africa and Asia shift camp along 
regular seasonal routes to take advantage of predictable seasonal changes 
in pasturage. Thus, the shift from hunting-gathering to food production 
did not always coincide with a shift from nomadism to sedentary living. 

Another supposed dichotomy that becomes blurred in reality is a dis- 
tinction between food producers as active managers of their land and 
hunter-gatherers as mere collectors of the land's wild produce. In reality, 
some hunter-gatherers intensively manage their land. For example, New 
Guinea peoples who never domesticated sago palms or mountain pan-i 
danus nevertheless increase production of these wild edible plants by clear- 
ing away encroaching competing trees, keeping channels in sago swamps 
clear, and promoting growth of new sago shoots by cutting down mature 


sago trees. Aboriginal Australians who never reached the stage of farming 
yams and seed plants nonetheless anticipated several elements of farming. 
They managed the landscape by burning it, to encourage the growth of 
edible seed plants that sprout after fires. In gathering wild yams, they cut 
off most of the edible tuber but replaced the stems and tops of the tubers 
in the ground so that the tubers would regrow. Their digging to extract 
the tuber loosened and aerated the soil and fostered regrowth. All that 
they would have had to do to meet the definition of farmers was to carry 
the stems and remaining attached tubers home and similarly replace them 
in soil at their camp. 

FROM THOSE PRECURSORS of food production already practiced by 
hunter-gatherers, it developed stepwise. Not all the necessary techniques 
were developed within a short time, and not all the wild plants and animals 
that were eventually domesticated in a given area were domesticated 
simultaneously. Even in the cases of the most rapid independent develop- 
ment of food production from a hunting-gathering lifestyle, it took thou- 
sands of years to shift from complete dependence on wild foods to a diet 
with very few wild foods. In early stages of food production, people simul- 
taneously collected wild foods and raised cultivated ones, and diverse 
types of collecting activities diminished in importance at different times as 
reliance on crops increased. 

The underlying reason why this transition was piecemeal is that food 
production systems evolved as a result of the accumulation of many sepa- 
rate decisions about allocating time and effort. Foraging humans, like for- 
aging animals, have only finite time and energy, which they can spend in 
various ways. We can picture an incipient farmer waking up and asking: 
Shall I spend today hoeing my garden (predictably yielding a lot of vegeta- 
bles several months from now), gathering shellfish (predictably yielding a 
little meat today), or hunting deer (yielding possibly a lot of meat today, 
but more likely nothing) ? Human and animal foragers are constantly prio- 
ritizing and making effort-allocation decisions, even if only unconsciously. 
They concentrate first on favorite foods, or ones that yield the highest 
payoff. If these are unavailable, they shift to less and less preferred foods. 

Many considerations enter into these decisions. People seek food in 
order to satisfy their hunger and fill their bellies. They also crave specific 
foods, such as protein-rich foods, fat, salt, sweet fruits, and foods that 


simply taste good. All other things being equal, people seek to maximize 
their return of calories, protein, or other specific food categories by forag- 
ing in a way that yields the most return with the greatest certainty in. the 
least time for the least effort. Simultaneously, they seek to minimize their 
risk of starving: moderate but reliable returns are preferable to a fluctuat- 
ing lifestyle with a high time-averaged rate of return but a substantial like- 
lihood of starving to death. One suggested function of the first gardens of 
nearly 11,000 years ago was to provide a reliable reserve larder as insur- 
ance in case wild food supplies failed. 

Conversely, men hunters tend to guide themselves by considerations of 
prestige: for example, they might rather go giraffe hunting every day, bag 
a giraffe once a month, and thereby gain the status of great hunter, than 
bring home twice a giraffe's weight of food in a month by humbling them- 
selves and reliably gathering nuts every day. People are also guided by 
seemingly arbitrary cultural preferences, such as considering fish either 
delicacies or taboo. Finally, their priorities are heavily influenced by the 
relative values they attach to different lifestyles — just as we can see today. 
For instance, in the 19th-century U.S. West, the cattlemen, sheepmen, and 
farmers all despised each other. Similarly, throughout human history farm- 
ers have tended to despise hunter-gatherers as primitive, hunter-gatherers 
have despised farmers as ignorant, and herders have despised both. All 
these elements come into play in people's separate decisions about how to 
obtain their food. 

As WE ALREADY noted, the first farmers on each continent could not 
have chosen farming consciously, because there were no other nearby 
farmers for them to observe. However, once food production had arisen 
in one part of a continent, neighboring hunter-gatherers could see the 
result and make conscious decisions. In some cases the hunter-gatherers 
adopted the neighboring system of food production virtually as a complete 
package; in others they chose only certain elements of it; and in still others 
they rejected food production entirely and remained hunter-gatherers. 

For example, hunter-gatherers in parts of southeastern Europe had 
quickly adopted Southwest Asian cereal crops, pulse crops, and livestock 
simultaneously as a complete package by around 6000 B.C. All three of 
these elements also spread rapidly through central Europe in the centuries 
before 5000 B.C. Adoption of food production may have been rapid and 


wholesale in southeastern and central Europe because the hunter-gatherer 
lifestyle there was less productive and less competitive. In contrast, food 
production was adopted piecemeal in southwestern Europe (southern 
France, Spain, and Italy), where sheep arrived first and cereals later. The 
adoption of intensive food production from the Asian mainland was also 
very slow and piecemeal in Japan, probably because the hunter-gatherer 
lifestyle based on seafood and local plants was so productive there. 

Just as a hunting-gathering lifestyle can be traded piecemeal for a food- 
producing lifestyle, one system of food production can also be traded 
piecemeal for another. For example, Indians of the eastern United States 
were domesticating local plants by about 2500 B.C. but had trade connec- 
tions with Mexican Indians who developed a more productive crop system 
based on the trinity of corn, squash, and beans. Eastern U.S. Indians 
adopted Mexican crops, and many of them discarded many of their local 
domesticates, piecemeal; squash was domesticated independently, corn 
arrived from Mexico around A.D. 200 but remained a minor crop until 
around A.D. 900, and beans arrived a century or two later. It even hap- 
pened that food-production systems were abandoned in favor of hunting- 
gathering. For instance, around 3000 B.C. the hunter-gatherers of southern 
Sweden adopted farming based on Southwest Asian crops, but abandoned 
it around 2700 B.C. and reverted to hunting-gathering for 400 years before 
resuming farming. 

ALL THESE CONSIDERATIONS make it clear that we should not sup- 
pose that the decision to adopt farming was made in a vacuum, as if the 
people had previously had no means to feed themselves. Instead, we must 
consider food production and hunting-gathering as alternative strategies 
competing with each other. Mixed economies that added certain crops or 
livestock to hunting-gathering also competed against both types of "pure" 
economies, and against mixed economies with higher or lower proportions 
of food production. Nevertheless, over the last 10,000 years, the predomi- 
nant result has been a shift from hunting-gathering to food production. 
Hence we must ask: What were the factors that tipped the competitive 
advantage away from the former and toward the latter? 

That question continues to be debated by archaeologists and anthropol- 
ogists. One reason for its remaining unsettled is that different factors may 
have been decisive in different parts of the world. Another has been the 


problem of disentangling cause and effect in the rise of food production. 
However, five main contributing factors can still be identified; the contro- 
versies revolve mainly around their relative importance. 

One factor is the decline in the availability of wild foods. The lifestyle 
of hunter-gatherers has become increasingly less rewarding over the past 
13,000 years, as resources on which they depended (especially animal 
resources) have become less abundant or even disappeared. As we saw in 
Chapter 1, most large mammal species became extinct in North and South 
America at the end of the Pleistocene, and some became extinct in Eurasia 
and Africa, either because of climate changes or because of the rise in skill 
and numbers of human hunters. While the role of animal extinctions in 
eventually (after a long lag) nudging ancient Native Americans, Eurasians, 
and Africans toward food production can be debated, there are numerous 
incontrovertible cases on islands in more recent times. Only after the first 
Polynesian settlers had exterminated moas and decimated seal populations 
on New Zealand, and exterminated or decimated seabirds and land birds 
on other Polynesian islands, did they intensify their food production. For 
instance, although the Polynesians who colonized Easter Island around 
A.D. 500 brought chickens with them, chicken did not become a major 
food until wild birds and porpoises were no longer readily available as 
food. Similarly, a suggested contributing factor to the rise of animal 
domestication in the Fertile Crescent was the decline in abundance of the 
wild gazelles that had previously been a major source of meat for hunter- 
gatherers in that area. 

A second factor is that, just as the depletion of wild game tended to 
make hunting-gathering less rewarding, an increased availability of 
domesticable wild plants made steps leading to plant domestication more 
rewarding. For instance, climate changes at the end of the Pleistocene in 
the Fertile Crescent greatly expanded the area of habitats with wild cere- 
als, of which huge crops could be harvested in a short time. Those wild 
cereal harvests were precursors to the domestication of the earliest crops, 
the cereals wheat and barley, in the Fertile Crescent. 

Still another factor tipping the balance away from hunting-gathering 
was the cumulative development of technologies on which food produc- 
tion would eventually depend — technologies for collecting, processing, 
and storing wild foods. What use can would-be farmers make of a ton of 
wheat grains on the stalk, if they have not first figured out how to harvest, 
husk, and store them? The necessary methods, implements, and facilities 


appeared rapidly in the Fertile Crescent after 11,000 B.C., having been 
invented for dealing with the newly available abundance of wild cereals. 

Those inventions included sickles of flint blades cemented into wooden 
or bone handles, for harvesting wild grains; baskets in which to carry the 
grains home from the hillsides where they grew; mortars and pestles, or 
grinding slabs, to remove the husks; the technique of roasting grains so 
that they could be stored without sprouting; and underground storage pits, 
some of them plastered to make them waterproof. Evidence for all of these 
techniques becomes abundant at sites of hunter-gatherers in the Fertile 
Crescent after 11,000 B.C. All these techniques, though developed for the 
exploitation of wild cereals, were prerequisites to the planting of cereals 
as crops. These cumulative developments constituted the unconscious first 
steps of plant domestication. 

A fourth factor was the two-way link between the rise in human popu- 
lation density and the rise in food production. In all parts of the world 
where adequate evidence is available, archaeologists find evidence of rising 
densities associated with the appearance of food production. Which was 
the cause and which the result? This is a long-debated chicken-or-egg 
problem: did a rise in human population density force people to turn to 
food production, or did food production permit a rise in human popula- 
tion density? 

In principle, one expects the chain of causation to operate in both direc- 
tions. As I've already discussed, food production tends to lead to increased 
population densities because it yields more edible calories per acre than 
does hunting-gathering. On the other hand, human population densities 
were gradually rising throughout the late Pleistocene anyway, thanks to 
improvements in human technology for collecting and processing wild 
foods. As population densities rose, food production became increasingly 
favored because it provided the increased food outputs needed to feed all 
those people. 

That is, the adoption of food production exemplifies what is termed an 
autocatalytic process — one that catalyzes itself in a positive feedback cycle, 
going faster and faster once it has started. A gradual rise in population 
densities impelled people to obtain more food, by rewarding those who 
unconsciously took steps toward producing it. Once people began to pro- 
duce food and become sedentary, they could shorten the birth spacing and 
produce still more people, requiring still more food. This bidirectional link 
between food production and population density explains the paradox 


that food production, while increasing the quantity of edible calories per 
acre, left the food producers less well nourished than the hunter-gatherers 
whom they succeeded. That paradox developed because human popula- 
tion densities rose slightly more steeply than did the availability of food. 

Taken together, these four factors help us understand why the transition 
to food production in the Fertile Crescent began around 8500 B.C., not 
around 18,500 or 28,500 B.C. At the latter two dates hunting-gathering 
was still much more rewarding than incipient food production, because 
wild mammals were still abundant; wild cereals were not yet abundant; 
people had not yet developed the inventions necessary for collecting, pro- 
cessing, and storing cereals efficiently; and human population densities 
were not yet high enough for a large premium to be placed on extracting 
more calories per acre. 

A final factor in the transition became decisive at geographic boundaries 
between hunter-gatherers and food producers. The much denser popula- 
tions of food producers enabled them to displace or kill hunter-gatherers 
by their sheer numbers, not to mention the other advantages associated 
with food production (including technology, germs, and professional sol- 
diers). In areas where there were only hunter-gatherers to begin with, those 
groups of hunter-gatherers who adopted food production outbred those 
who didn't. 

As a result, in most areas of the globe suitable for food production, 
hunter-gatherers met one of two fates: either they were displaced by neigh- 
boring food producers, or else they survived only by adopting food pro- 
duction themselves. In places where they were already numerous or where 
geography retarded immigration by food producers, local hunter-gatherers 
did have time to adopt farming in prehistoric times and thus to survive as 
farmers. This may have happened in the U.S. Southwest, in the western 
Mediterranean, on the Atlantic coast of Europe, and in parts of Japan. 
However, in Indonesia, tropical Southeast Asia, most of subequatorial 
Africa, and probably in parts of Europe, the hunter-gatherers were 
replaced by farmers in the prehistoric era, whereas a similar replacement 
took place in modern times in Australia and much of the western United 

Only where especially potent geographic or ecological barriers made 
immigration of food producers or diffusion of locally appropriate food- 
producing techniques very difficult were hunter-gatherers able to persist 
until modern times in areas suitable for food production. The three out- 


standing examples are the persistence of Native American hunter-gather- 
ers in California, separated by deserts from the Native American farmers 
of Arizona; that of Khoisan hunter-gatherers at the Cape of South Africa, 
in a Mediterranean climate zone unsuitable for the equatorial crops of 
nearby Bantu farmers; and that of hunter-gatherers throughout the Aus- 
tralian continent, separated by narrow seas from the food producers of 
Indonesia and New Guinea. Those few peoples who remained hunter- 
gatherers into the 20th century escaped replacement by food producers 
because they were confined to areas not fit for food production, especially 
deserts and Arctic regions. Within the present decade, even they will have 
been seduced by the attractions of civilization, settled down underpressure 
from bureaucrats or missionaries, or succumbed to germs. 



grown foods, it's fun to try eating wild foods. You know that some 
wild plants, such as wild strawberries and blueberries, are both tasty and 
safe to eat. They're sufficiently similar to familiar crops that you can easily 
recognize the wild berries, even though they're much smaller than those 
we grow. Adventurous hikers cautiously eat mushrooms, aware that many 
species can kill us. But not even ardent nut lovers eat wild almonds, of 
which a few dozen contain enough cyanide (the poison used in Nazi gas 
chambers) to kill us. The forest is full of many other plants deemed ined- 

Yet all crops arose from wild plant species. How did certain wild plants 
get turned into crops? That question is especially puzzling in regard to the 
many crops (like almonds) whose wild progenitors are lethal or bad-tast- 
ing, and to other crops (like corn) that look drastically different from their 
wild ancestors. What cavewoman or caveman ever got the idea of "domes- 
ticating" a plant, and how was it accomplished? 

Plant domestication may be defined as growing a plant and thereby, 
consciously or unconsciously, causing it to change genetically from its wild 
ancestor in ways making it more useful to human consumers. Crop devel- 


opment is today a conscious, highly specialized effort carried out by pro- 
fessional scientists. They already know about the hundreds of existing 
crops and set out to develop yet another one. To achieve that goal, they 
plant many different seeds or roots, select the best progeny and plant their 
seeds, apply knowledge of genetics to develop good varieties that breed 
true, and perhaps even use the latest techniques of genetic engineering to 
transfer specific useful genes. At the Davis campus of the University of 
California, an entire department (the Department of Pomology) is devoted 
to apples and another (the Department of Viticulture and Enology) to 
grapes and wine. 

But plant domestication goes back over 10,000 years. Early farmers 
surely didn't use molecular genetic techniques to arrive at their results. The 
first farmers didn't even have any existing crop as a model to inspire them 
to develop new ones. Hence they couldn't have known that, whatever they 
were doing, they would enjoy a tasty treat as a result. 

How, then, did early farmers domesticate plants unwittingly? For exam- 
ple, how did they turn poisonous almonds into safe ones without knowing 
what they were doing? What changes did they actually make in wild 
plants, besides rendering some of them bigger or less poisonous? Even for 
valuable crops, the times of domestication vary greatly: for instance, peas 
were domesticated by 8000 B.C., olives around 4000 B.C., strawberries not 
until the Middle Ages, and pecans not until 1846. Many valuable wild 
plants yielding food prized by millions of people, such as oaks sought for 
their edible acorns in many parts of the world, remain untamed even 
today. What made some plants so much easier or more inviting to domesti- 
cate than others? Why did olive trees yield to Stone Age farmers, whereas 
oak trees continue to defeat our brightest agronomists? 

LET' S BEGIN BY looking at domestication from the plant's point of view. 
As far as plants are concerned, we're just one of thousands of animal spe- 
cies that unconsciously "domesticate" plants. 

Like all animal species (including humans), plants must spread their 
offspring to areas where they can thrive and pass on their parents' genes. 
Young animals disperse by walking or flying, but plants don't have that 
option, so they must somehow hitchhike. While some plant species have 
seeds adapted for being carried by the wind or for floating on water, many 


others trick an animal into carrying their seeds, by wrapping the seed in a 
tasty fruit and advertising the fruit's ripeness by its color or smell. The 
hungry animal plucks and swallows the fruit, walks or flies off, and then 
spits out or defecates the seed somewhere far from its parent tree. Seeds 
can in this manner be carried for thousands of miles. 

It may come as a surprise to learn that plant seeds can resist digestion by 
your gut and nonetheless germinate out of your feces. But any adventurous 
readers who are not too squeamish can make the test and prove it for 
themselves. The seeds of many wild plant species actually must pass 
through an animal's gut before they can germinate. For instance, one Afri- 
can melon species is so well adapted to being eaten by a hyena-like animal 
called the aardwolf that most melons of that species grow on the latrine 
sites of aardwolves. 

As an example of how would-be plant hitchhikers attract animals, con- 
sider wild strawberries. When strawberry seeds are still young and not yet 
ready to be planted, the surrounding fruit is green, sour, and hard. When 
the seeds finally mature, the berries turn red, sweet, and tender. The 
change in the berries' color serves as a signal attracting birds like thrushes 
to pluck the berries and fly off, eventually to spit out or defecate the seeds. 

Naturally, strawberry plants didn't set out with a conscious intent of 
attracting birds when, and only when, their seeds were ready to be dis- 
persed. Neither did thrushes set out with the intent of domesticating straw- 
berries. Instead, strawberry plants evolved through natural selection. The 
greener and more sour the young strawberry, the fewer the birds that 
destroyed the seeds by eating berries before the seeds were ready; the 
sweeter and redder the final strawberry, the more numerous the birds that 
dispersed its ripe seeds. 

Countless other plants have fruits adapted to being eaten and dispersed 
by particular species of animals. Just as strawberries are adapted to birds, 
so acorns are adapted to squirrels, mangos to bats, and some sedges to 
ants. That fulfills part of our definition of plant domestication, as the 
genetic modification of an ancestral plant in ways that make it more useful 
to consumers. But no one would seriously describe this evolutionary pro- 
cess as domestication, because birds and bats and other animal consumers 
don't fulfill the other part of the definition: they don't consciously grow 
plants. In the same way, the early unconscious stages of crop evolution 
from wild plants consisted of plants evolving in ways that attracted 
humans to eat and disperse their fruit without yet intentionally growing 


them. Human latrines, like those of aardvarks, may have been a testing 
ground of the first unconscious crop breeders. 

LATRINES ARE MERELY one of the many places where we accidentally 
sow the seeds of wild plants that we eat. When we gather edible wild 
plants and bring them home, some spill en route or at our houses. Some 
fruit rots while still containing perfectly good seeds, and gets thrown out 
uneaten into the garbage. As parts of the fruit that we actually take into 
our mouths, strawberry seeds are tiny and inevitably swallowed and defe- 
cated, but other seeds are large enough to be spat out. Thus, our spittoons 
and garbage dumps joined our latrines to form the first agricultural 
research laboratories. 

At whichever such "lab" the seeds ended up, they tended to come from 
only certain individuals of edible plants — namely, those that we preferred 
to eat for one reason or another. From your berry-picking days, you know 
that you select particular berries or berry bushes. Eventually, when the first 
farmers began to sow seeds deliberately, they would inevitably sow those 
from the plants they had chosen to gather, even though they didn't under- 
stand the genetic principle that big berries have seeds likely to grow into 
bushes yielding more big berries. 

So, when you wade into a thorny thicket amid the mosquitoes on a hot, 
humid day, you don't do it for just any strawberry bush. Even if uncon- 
sciously, you decide which bush looks most promising, and whether it's 
worth it at all. What are your unconscious criteria? 

One criterion, of course, is size. You prefer large berries, because it's 
not worth your while to get sunburned and mosquito bitten for some lousy 
little berries. That provides part of the explanation why many crop plants 
have much bigger fruits than their wild ancestors do. It's especially familiar 
to us that supermarket strawberries and blueberries are gigantic compared 
with wild ones; those differences arose only in recent centuries. 

Such size differences in other plants go back to the very beginnings of 
agriculture, when cultivated peas evolved through human selection to be 
10 times heavier than wild peas. The little wild peas had been collected 
by hunter-gatherers for thousands of years, just as we collect little wild 
blueberries today, before the preferential harvesting and planting of the 
most appealing largest wild peas — that is, what we call farming — began 
automatically to contribute to increases in average pea size from genera- 


tion to generation. Similarly, supermarket apples are typically around 
three inches in diameter, wild apples only one inch. The oldest corn cobs 
are barely more than half an inch long, but Mexican Indian farmers of 
A.D. 1500 already had developed six-inch cobs, and some modern cobs are 
one and a half feet long. 

Another obvious difference between seeds that we grow and many of 
their wild ancestors is in bitterness. Many wild seeds evolved to be bitter, 
bad-tasting, or actually poisonous, in order to deter animals from eating 
them. Thus, natural selection acts oppositely on seeds and on fruits. Plants 
whose fruits are tasty get their seeds dispersed by animals, but the seed 
itself within the fruit has to be bad-tasting. Otherwise, the animal would 
also chew up the seed, and it couldn't sprout. 

Almonds provide a striking example of bitter seeds and their change 
under domestication. Most wild almond seeds contain an intensely bitter 
chemical called amygdalin, which (as was already mentioned) breaks 
down to yield the poison cyanide. A snack of wild almonds can kill a 
person foolish enough to ignore the warning of the bitter taste. Since the 
first stage in unconscious domestication involves gathering seeds to eat, 
how on earth did domestication of wild almonds ever reach that first 

The explanation is that occasional individual almond trees have a muta- 
tion in a single gene that prevents them from synthesizing the bitter-tasting 
amygdalin. Such trees die out in the wild without leaving any progeny, 
because birds discover and eat all their seeds. But curious or hungry chil- 
dren of early farmers, nibbling wild plants around them, would eventually 
have sampled and noticed those nonbitter almond trees. (In the same way, 
European peasants today still recognize and appreciate occasional individ- 
ual oak trees whose acorns are sweet rather than bitter.) Those nonbitter 
almond seeds are the only ones that ancient farmers would have planted, 
at first unintentionally in their garbage heaps and later intentionally in 
their orchards. 

Already by 8000 B.C. wild almonds show up in excavated archaeologi- 
cal sites in Greece. By 3000 B.C. they were being domesticated in lands of 
the eastern Mediterranean. When the Egyptian king Tutankhamen died, 
around 1325 B.C., almonds were one of the foods left in his famous tomb 
to nourish him in the afterlife. Lima beans, watermelons, potatoes, egg- 
plants, and cabbages are among the many other familiar crops whose wild 
ancestors were bitter or poisonous, and of which occasional sweet individ- 


uals must have sprouted around the latrines of ancient hikers. 

While size and tastiness are the most obvious criteria by which human 
hunter-gatherers select wild plants, other criteria include fleshy or seedless 
fruits, oily seeds, and long fibers. Wild squashes and pumpkins have little 
or no fruit around their seeds, but the preferences of early farmers selected 
for squashes and pumpkins consisting of far more flesh than seeds. Culti- 
vated bananas were selected long ago to be all flesh and no seed, thereby 
inspiring modern agricultural scientists to develop seedless oranges, 
grapes, and watermelons as well. Seedlessness provides a good example of 
how human selection can completely reverse the original evolved function 
of a wild fruit, which in nature serves as a vehicle for dispersing seeds. 

In ancient times many plants were similarly selected for oily fruits or 
seeds. Among the earliest fruit trees domesticated in the Mediterranean 
world were olives, cultivated since around 4000 B.C. for their oil. Crop 
olives are not only bigger but also oilier than wild ones. Ancient farmers 
selected sesame, mustard, poppies, and flax as well for oily seeds, while 
modern plant scientists have done the same for sunflower, safflower, and 

Before that recent development of cotton for oil, it was of course 
selected for its fibers, used to weave textiles. The fibers (termed lint) are 
hairs on the cotton seeds, and early farmers of both the Americas and the 
Old World independently selected different species of cotton for long lint. 
In flax and hemp, two other plants grown to supply the textiles of antiq- 
uity, the fibers come instead from the stem, and plants were selected for 
long, straight stems. While we think of most crops as being grown for 
food, flax is one of our oldest crops (domesticated by around 7000 B.C.). It 
furnished linen, which remained the chief textile of Europe until it became 
supplanted by cotton and synthetics after the Industrial Revolution. 

JO FAR, ALL the changes that I've described in the evolution of wild 
plants into crops involve characters that early farmers could actually 
notice — such as fruit size, bitterness, fleshiness, and oiliness, and fiber 
length. By harvesting those individual wild plants possessing these desir- 
able qualities to an exceptional degree, ancient peoples unconsciously dis- 
persed the plants and set them on the road to domestication. 

In addition, though, there were at least four other major types of change 
that did not involve berry pickers making visible choices. In these cases the 


berry pickers caused changes either by harvesting available plants while 
other plants remained unavailable for invisible reasons, or by changing the 
selective conditions acting on plants. 

The first such change affected wild mechanisms for the dispersal of 
seeds. Many plants have specialized mechanisms that scatter seeds (and 
thereby prevent humans from gathering them efficiently). Only mutant 
seeds lacking those mechanisms would have been harvested and would 
thus have become the progenitors of crops. 

A clear example involves peas, whose seeds (the peas we eat) come 
enclosed in a pod. Wild peas have to get out of the pod if they are to 
germinate. To achieve that result, pea plants evolved a gene that makes the 
pod explode, shooting out the peas onto the ground. Pods of occasional 
mutant peas don't explode. In the wild the mutant peas would die 
entombed in their pod on their parent plants, and only the popping pods 
would pass on their genes. But, conversely, the only pods available to 
humans to harvest would be the nonpopping ones left on the plant. Thus, 
once humans began bringing wild peas home to eat, there was immediate 
selection for that single-gene mutant. Similar nonpopping mutants were 
selected in lentils, flax, and poppies. 

Instead of being enclosed in a poppable pod, wild wheat and barley 
seeds grow at the top of a stalk that spontaneously shatters, dropping the 
seeds to the ground where they can germinate. A single-gene mutation 
prevents the stalks from shattering. In the wild that mutation would be 
lethal to the plant, since the seeds would remain suspended in the air, 
unable to germinate and take root. But those mutant seeds would have 
been the ones waiting conveniently on the stalk to be harvested and 
brought home by humans. When humans then planted those harvested 
mutant seeds, any mutant seeds among the progeny again became avail- 
able to the farmers to harvest and sow, while normal seeds among the 
progeny fell to the ground and became unavailable. Thus, human farmers 
reversed the direction of natural selection by 180 degrees: the formerly 
successful gene suddenly became lethal, and the lethal mutant became suc- 
cessful. Over 10,000 years ago, that unconscious selection for nonshat- 
tering wheat and barley stalks was apparently the first major human 
"improvement" in any plant. That change marked the beginning of agri- 
culture in the Fertile Crescent. 

The second type of change was even less visible to ancient hikers. For 
annual plants growing in an area with a very unpredictable climate, it 


could be lethal if all the seeds sprouted quickly and simultaneously. Were 
that to happen, the seedlings might all be killed by a single drought or 
frost, leaving no seeds to propagate the species. Hence many annual plants 
have evolved to hedge their bets by means of germination inhibitors, which 
make seeds initially dormant and spread out their germination over several 
years. In that way, even if most seedlings are killed by a bout of bad 
weather, some seeds will be left to germinate later. 

A common bet-hedging adaptation by which wild plants achieve that 
result is to enclose their seeds in a thick coat or armor. The many wild 
plants with such adaptations include wheat, barley, peas, flax, and sun- 
flowers. While such late-sprouting seeds still have the opportunity to ger- 
minate in the wild, consider what must have happened as farming 
developed. Early farmers would have discovered by trial and error that 
they could obtain higher yields by tilling and watering the soil and then 
sowing seeds. When that happened, seeds that immediately sprouted grew 
into plants whose seeds were harvested and planted in the next year. But 
many of the wild seeds did not immediately sprout, and they yielded no 

Occasional mutant individuals among wild plants lacked thick seed 
coats or other inhibitors of germination. All such mutants promptly 
sprouted and yielded harvested mutant seeds. Early farmers wouldn't have 
noticed the difference, in the way that they did notice and selectively har- 
vest big berries. But the cycle of sow / grow / harvest / sow would have 
selected immediately and unconsciously for the mutants. Like the changes 
in seed dispersal, these changes in germination inhibition characterize 
wheat, barley, peas, and many other crops compared with their wild ances- 

The remaining major type of change invisible to early farmers involved 
plant reproduction. A general problem in crop development is that occa- 
sional mutant plant individuals are more useful to humans (for example, 
because of bigger or less bitter seeds) than are normal individuals. If those 
desirable mutants proceeded to interbreed with normal plants, the muta- 
tion would immediately be diluted or lost. Under what circumstances 
would it remain preserved for early farmers? 

For plants that reproduce themselves, the mutant would automatically 
be preserved. That's true of plants that reproduce vegetatively (from a 
tuber or root of the parent plant), or that are hermaphrodites capable of 
fertilizing themselves. But the vast majority of wild plants don't reproduce 


that way. They're either hermaphrodites incapable of fertilizing themselves 
and forced to interbreed with other hermaphrodite individuals (my male 
part fertilizes your female part, your male part fertilizes my female part), 
or else they occur as separate male and female individuals, like all normal 
mammals. The former plants are termed self-incompatible hermaphro- 
dites; the latter, dioecious species. Both were bad news for ancient farmers, 
who would thereby have promptly lost any favorable mutants without 
understanding why. 

The solution involved another type of invisible change. Numerous plant 
mutations affect the reproductive system itself. Some mutant individuals 
developed fruit without even having to be pollinated, resulting in our 
seedless bananas, grapes, oranges, and pineapples. Some mutant hermaph- 
rodites lost their self-incompatibility and became able to fertilize them- 
selves — a process exemplified by many fruit trees such as plums, peaches, 
apples, apricots, and cherries. Some mutant grapes that normally would 
have had separate male and female individuals also became self-fertilizing 
hermaphrodites. By all these means, ancient farmers, who didn't under- 
stand plant reproductive biology, still ended up with useful crops that bred 
true and were worth replanting, instead of initially promising mutants 
whose worthless progeny were consigned to oblivion. 

Thus, farmers selected from among individual plants on the basis not 
only of perceptible qualities like size and taste, but also of invisible features 
like seed dispersal mechanisms, germination inhibition, and reproductive 
biology. As a result, different plants became selected for quite different or 
even opposite features. Some plants (like sunflowers) were selected for 
much bigger seeds, while others (like bananas) were selected for tiny or 
even nonexistent seeds. Lettuce was selected for luxuriant leaves at the 
expense of seeds or fruit; wheat and sunflowers, for seeds at the expense 
of leaves; and squash, for fruit at the expense of leaves. Especially instruc- 
tive are cases in which a single wild plant species was variously selected 
for different purposes and thereby gave rise to quite different-looking 
crops. Beets, grown already in Babylonian times for their leaves (like the 
modern beet varieties called chards), were then developed for their edible 
roots and finally (in the 18th century) for their sugar content (sugar beets). 
Ancestral cabbage plants, possibly grown originally for their oily seeds, 
underwent even greater diversification as they became variously selected 
for leaves (modern cabbage and kale), stems (kohlrabi), buds (brussels 
sprouts), or flower shoots (cauliflower and broccoli). 

So far, we have been discussing transformations of wild plants into 


crops as a result of selection by farmers, consciously or unconsciously. 
That is, farmers initially selected seeds of certain wild plant individuals to 
bring into their gardens and then chose certain progeny seeds each year to 
grow in the next year's garden. But much of the transformation was also 
effected as a result of plants' selecting themselves. Darwin's phrase "natu- 
ral selection" refers to certain individuals of a species surviving better, 
and / or reproducing more successfully, than competing individuals of the 
same species under natural conditions. In effect, the natural processes of 
differential survival and reproduction do the selecting. If the conditions 
change, different types of individuals may now survive or reproduce better 
and become "naturally selected," with the result that the population 
undergoes evolutionary change. A classic example is the development of 
industrial melanism in British moths: darker moth individuals became rela- 
tively commoner than paler individuals as the environment became dirtier 
during the 19th century, because dark moths resting on a dark, dirty tree 
were more likely than contrasting pale moths to escape the attention of 

Much as the Industrial Revolution changed the environment for moths, 
farming changed the environment for plants. A tilled, fertilized, watered, 
weeded garden provides growing conditions very different from those on 
a dry, unfertilized hillside. Many changes of plants under domestication 
resulted from such changes in conditions and hence in the favored types 
of individuals. For example, when a farmer sows seeds densely in a garden, 
there is intense competition among the seeds. Big seeds that can take 
advantage of the good conditions to grow quickly will now be favored 
over small seeds that were previously favored on dry, unfertilized hillsides 
where seeds were sparser and competition less intense. Such increased 
competition among plants themselves made a major contribution to larger 
seed size and to many other changes developing during the transformation 
of wild plants into ancient crops. 

WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR the great differences among plants in ease of 
domestication, such that some species were domesticated long ago and 
others not until the Middle Ages, whereas still other wild plants have 
proved immune to all our activities? We can deduce many of the answers 
by examining the well-established sequence in which various crops devel- 
oped in Southwest Asia's Fertile Crescent. 

It turns out that the earliest Fertile Crescent crops, such as the wheat 


and barley and peas domesticated around 10,000 years ago, arose from 
wild ancestors offering many advantages. They were already edible and 
gave high yields in the wild. They were easily grown, merely by being sown 
or planted. They grew quickly and could be harvested within a few months 
of sowing, a big advantage for incipient farmers still on the borderline 
between nomadic hunters and settled villagers. They could be readily 
stored, unlike many later crops such as strawberries and lettuce. They were 
mostly self-pollinating: that is, the crop varieties could pollinate them- 
selves and pass on their own desirable genes unchanged, instead of having 
to hybridize with other varieties less useful to humans. Finally, their wild 
ancestors required very little genetic change to be converted into crops — 
for instance, in wheat, just the mutations for nonshattering stalks and uni- 
form quick germination. 

A next stage of crop development included the first fruit and nut trees, 
domesticated around 4000 B.C. They comprised olives, figs, dates, pome- 
granates, and grapes. Compared with cereals and legumes, they had the 
drawback of not starting to yield food until at least three years after plant- 
ing, and not reaching full production until after as much as a decade. Thus, 
growing these crops was possible only for people already fully committed 
to the settled village life. However, these early fruit and nut trees were still 
the easiest such crops to cultivate. Unlike later tree domesticates, they 
could be grown directly by being planted as cuttings or even seeds. Cut- 
tings have the advantage that, once ancient farmers had found or devel- 
oped a productive tree, they could be sure that all its descendants would 
remain identical to it. 

A third stage involved fruit trees that proved much harder to cultivate, 
including apples, pears, plums, and cherries. These trees cannot be grown 
from cuttings. It's also a waste of effort to grow them from seed, since the 
offspring even of an outstanding individual tree of those species are highly 
variable and mostly yield worthless fruit. Instead, those trees must be 
grown by the difficult technique of grafting, developed in China long after 
the beginnings of agriculture. Not only is grafting hard work even once 
you know the principle, but the principle itself could have been discovered 
only through conscious experimentation. The invention of grafting was 
hardly just a matter of some nomad relieving herself at a latrine and 
returning later to be pleasantly surprised by the resulting crop of fine fruit. 

Many of these late-stage fruit trees posed a further problem in that their 
wild progenitors were the opposite of self-pollinating. They had to be 


cross-pollinated by another plant belonging to a genetically different vari- 
ety of their species. Hence early farmers either had to find mutant trees not 
requiring cross-pollination, or had consciously to plant genetically differ- 
ent varieties or else male and female individuals nearby in the same 
orchard. All those problems delayed the domestication of apples, pears, 
plums, and cherries until around classical times. At about the same time, 
though, another group of late domesticates arose with much less effort, 
as wild plants that established themselves initially as weeds in fields of 
intentionally cultivated crops. Crops starting out as weeds included rye 
and oats, turnips and radishes, beets and leeks, and lettuce. 

ALTHOUGH THE DETAILED sequence that I've just described applies to 
the Fertile Crescent, partly similar sequences also appeared elsewhere in 
the world. In particular, the Fertile Crescent's wheat and barley exemplify 
the class of crops termed cereals or grains (members of the grass family), 
while Fertile Crescent peas and lentils exemplify pulses (members of the 
legume family, which includes beans). Cereal crops have the virtues of 
being fast growing, high in carbohydrates, and yielding up to a ton of 
edible food per hectare cultivated. As a result, cereals today account for 
over half of all calories consumed by humans and include five of the mod- 
ern world's 12 leading crops (wheat, corn, rice, barley, and sorghum). 
Many cereal crops are low in protein, but that deficit is made up by pulses, 
which are often 25 percent protein (38 percent in the case of soybeans). 
Cereals and pulses together thus provide many of the ingredients of a bal- 
anced diet. 

As Table 7.1 (next page) summarizes, the domestication of local cereal / 
pulse combinations launched food production in many areas. The most 
familiar examples are the combination of wheat and barley with peas and 
lentils in the Fertile Crescent, the combination of corn with several bean 
species in Mesoamerica, and the combination of rice and millets with soy- 
beans and other beans in China. Less well known are Africa's combination 
of sorghum, African rice, and pearl millet with cowpeas and groundnuts, 
and the Andes' combination of the noncereal grain quinoa with several 
bean species. 

Table 7.1 also shows that the Fertile Crescent's early domestication of 
flax for fiber was paralleled elsewhere. Hemp, four cotton species, yucca, 
and agave variously furnished fiber for rope and woven clothing in China, 


TABLE 7.1. Examples of Early Major Crop Types around the 
Ancient World 

Area Crop Type 

Cereals, Pulses 
Other Grasses 

Fertile Crescent 

Andes, Amazonia 

West Africa and 



Eastern United States 
New Guinea 

emmer wheat, ein- 
korn wheat, barley 

foxtail millet, broom- 
corn millet, rice 


quinoa, [corn] 

sorghum, pearl millet, 

African rice 
[wheat, barley, rice, 

sorghum, millets] 

teff, finger millet, 
[wheat, barley] 

maygrass, little 
barley, knotweed, 

sugar cane 

pea, lentil, 

soybean, adzuki 

bean, mung bean 
common bean, tep- 

ary bean, scarlet 

runner bean 
lima bean, 

common bean, 


cowpea, groundnut 

hyacinth bean, 

black gram, 

green gram 
[pea, lentil] 

Mesoamerica, India, Ethiopia, sub-Saharan Africa, and South America, 
supplemented in several of those areas by wool from domestic animals. Of 
the centers of early food production, only the eastern United States and 
New Guinea remained without a fiber crop. 

Alongside these parallels, there were also some major differences in 
food production systems around the world. One is that agriculture in 
much of the Old World came to involve broadcast seeding and monocul- 
ture fields, and eventually plowing. That is, seeds were sown by being 


Crop Type 









cotton (G. birsutum), 
yucca, agave 


squashes (C. pepo, etc.) 

cotton (G. barbadense) 

manioc, sweet 
potato, potato, 

squashes (C. maxima, etc.) 

cotton G. herbaceum) 

African yams 

watermelon, bottle gourd 

cotton (G. arboreum), 



Jerusalem artichoke 

squash (C. pepo) 

yams, taro 

The table gives major crops, of five crop classes, from early agricultural sites in various 
parts of the world. Square brackets enclose names of crops first domesticated elsewhere; 
names not enclosed in brackets refer to local domesticates. Omitted are crops that arrived or 
became important only later, such as bananas in Africa, corn and beans in the eastern United 
States, and sweet potato in New Guinea. Cottons are four species of the genus Gossypium, 
each species being native to a particular part of the world; squashes are five species of the 
genus Cucurbita. Note that cereals, pulses, and fiber crops launched agriculture in most 
areas, but that root and tuber crops and melons were of early importance in only some areas. 


thrown in handfuls, resulting in a whole field devoted to a single crop. 
Once cows, horses, and other large mammals were domesticated, they 
were hitched to plows, and fields were tilled by animal power. In the New 
World, however, no animal was ever domesticated that could be hitched 
to a plow. Instead, fields were always tilled by hand-held sticks or hoes, 
and seeds were planted individually by hand and not scattered as whole 
handfuls. Most New World fields thus came to be mixed gardens of many 
crops planted together, rather than monoculture. 

Another major difference among agricultural systems involved the main 
sources of calories and carbohydrates. As we have seen, these were cereals 
in many areas. In other areas, though, that role of cereals was taken over 
or shared by roots and tubers, which were of negligible importance in the 
ancient Fertile Crescent and China. Manioc (alias cassava) and sweet 
potato became staples in tropical South America, potato and oca in the 
Andes, African yams in Africa, and Indo-Pacific yams and taro in South- 
east Asia and New Guinea. Tree crops, notably bananas and breadfruit, 
also furnished carbohydrate-rich staples in Southeast Asia and New 

THUS, BY ROMAN times, almost all of today's leading crops were being 
cultivated somewhere in the world. Just as we shall see for domestic ani- 
mals too (Chapter 9), ancient hunter-gatherers were intimately familiar 
with local wild plants, and ancient farmers evidently discovered and 
domesticated almost all of those worth domesticating. Of course, medieval 
monks did begin to cultivate strawberries and raspberries, and modern 
plant breeders are still improving ancient crops and have added new minor 
crops, notably some berries (like blueberries, cranberries, and kiwifruit) 
and nuts (macadamias, pecans, and cashews). But these few modern addi- 
tions have remained of modest importance compared with ancient staples 
like wheat, corn, and rice. 

Still, our list of triumphs lacks many wild plants that, despite their value 
as food, we never succeeded in domesticating. Notable among these fail- 
ures of ours are oak trees, whose acorns were a staple food of Native 
Americans in California and the eastern United States as well as a fallback 
food for European peasants in famine times of crop failure. Acorns are 
nutritionally valuable, being rich in starch and oil. Like many otherwise 
edible wild foods, most acorns do contain bitter tannins, but acorn lovers 


learned to deal with tannins in the same way that they dealt with bitter 
chemicals in almonds and other wild plants: either by grinding and leach- 
ing the acorns to remove the tannins, or by harvesting acorns from the 
occasional mutant individual oak tree low in tannins. 

Why have we failed to domesticate such a prized food source as acorns? 
Why did we take so long to domesticate strawberries and raspberries? 
What is it about those plants that kept their domestication beyond the 
reach of ancient farmers capable of mastering such difficult techniques as 

It turns out that oak trees have three strikes against them. First, their 
slow growth would exhaust the patience of most farmers. Sown wheat 
yields a crop within a few months; a planted almond grows into a nut- 
bearing tree in three or four years; but a planted acorn may not become 
productive for a decade or more. Second, oak trees evolved to make nuts 
of a size and taste suitable for squirrels, which we've all seen burying, 
digging up, and eating acorns. Oaks grow from the occasional acorn that 
a squirrel forgets to dig up. With billions of squirrels each spreading hun- 
dreds of acorns every year to virtually any spot suitable for oak trees to 
grow, we humans didn't stand a chance of selecting oaks for the acorns 
that we wanted. Those same problems of slow growth and fast squirrels 
probably also explain why beech and hickory trees, heavily exploited as 
wild trees for their nuts by Europeans and Native Americans, respectively, 
were also not domesticated. 

Finally, perhaps the most important difference between almonds and 
acorns is that bitterness is controlled by a single dominant gene in almonds 
but appears to be controlled by many genes in oaks. If ancient farmers 
planted almonds or acorns from the occasional nonbitter mutant tree, the 
laws of genetics dictate that half of the nuts from the resulting tree growing 
up would also be nonbitter in the case of almonds, but almost all would 
still be bitter in the case of oaks. That alone would kill the enthusiasm of 
any would-be acorn farmer who had defeated the squirrels and remained 

As for strawberries and raspberries, we had similar trouble competing 
with thrushes and other berry-loving birds. Yes, the Romans did tend wild 
strawberries in their gardens. But with billions of European thrushes defe- 
cating wild strawberry seeds in every possible place (including Roman gar- 
dens), strawberries remained the little berries that thrushes wanted, not 
the big berries that humans wanted. Only with the recent development of 


protective nets and greenhouses were we finally able to defeat the thrushes, 
and to redesign strawberries and raspberries according to our own stan- 

W E 'VE THUS SEEN that the difference between gigantic supermarket 
strawberries and tiny wild ones is just one example of the various features 
distinguishing cultivated plants from their wild ancestors. Those differ- 
ences arose initially from natural variation among the wild plants them- 
selves. Some of it, such as the variation in berry size or in nut bitterness, 
would have been readily noticed by ancient farmers. Other variation, such 
as that in seed dispersal mechanisms or seed dormancy, would have gone 
unrecognized by humans before the rise of modern botany. But whether 
or not the selection of wild edible plants by ancient hikers relied on con- 
scious or unconscious criteria, the resulting evolution of wild plants into 
crops was at first an unconscious process. It followed inevitably from our 
selecting among wild plant individuals, and from competition among plant 
individuals in gardens favoring individuals different from those favored in 
the wild. 

That's why Darwin, in his great book On the Origin of Species, didn't 
start with an account of natural selection. His first chapter is instead a 
lengthy account of how our domesticated plants and animals arose 
through artificial selection by humans. Rather than discussing the Galapa- 
gos Island birds that we usually associate with him, Darwin began by dis- 
cussing — how farmers develop varieties of gooseberries! He wrote, "I have 
seen great surprise expressed in horticultural works at the wonderful skill 
of gardeners, in having produced such splendid results from such poor 
materials; but the art has been simple, and as far as the final result is con- 
cerned, has been followed almost unconsciously. It has consisted in always 
cultivating the best-known variety, sowing its seeds, and, when a slightly 
better variety chanced to appear, selecting it, and so onwards." Those 
principles of crop development by artificial selection still serve as our most 
understandable model of the origin of species by natural selection. 



began to cultivate wild plant species, a step with momentous 
unforeseen consequences for their lifestyle and their descendants' place in 
history. Let us now return to our questions: Why did agriculture never 
arise independently in some fertile and highly suitable areas, such as Cali- 
fornia, Europe, temperate Australia, and subequatorial Africa? Why, 
among the areas where agriculture did arise independently, did it develop 
much earlier in some than in others? 

Two contrasting explanations suggest themselves: problems with the 
local people, or problems with the locally available wild plants. On the 
one hand, perhaps almost any well-watered temperate or tropical area of 
the globe offers enough species of wild plants suitable for domestication. 
In that case, the explanation for agriculture's failure to develop in some of 
those areas would lie with cultural characteristics of their peoples. On the 
other hand, perhaps at least some humans in any large area of the globe 
would have been receptive to the experimentation that led to domestica- 
tion. Only the lack of suitable wild plants might then explain why food 
production did not evolve in some areas. 

As we shall see in the next chapter, the corresponding problem for 
domestication of big wild mammals proves easier to solve, because there 


are many fewer species of them than of plants. The world holds only about 
148 species of large wild mammalian terrestrial herbivores or omnivores, 
the large mammals that could be considered candidates for domestication. 
Only a modest number of factors determines whether a mammal is suitable 
for domestication. It's thus straightforward to review a region's big mam- 
mals and to test whether the lack of mammal domestication in some 
regions was due to the unavailability of suitable wild species, rather than 
to local peoples. 

That approach would be much more difficult to apply to plants because 
of the sheer number — 200,000 — of species of wild flowering plants, the 
plants that dominate vegetation on the land and that have furnished 
almost all of our crops. We can't possibly hope to examine all the wild 
plant species of even a circumscribed area like California, and to assess 
how many of them would have been domesticable. But we shall now see 
how to get around that problem. 

WHEN ONE HEARS that there are so many species of flowering plants, 
one's first reaction might be as follows: surely, with all those wild plant 
species on Earth, any area with a sufficiently benign climate must have 
had more than enough species to provide plenty of candidates for crop 

But then reflect that the vast majority of wild plants are unsuitable for 
obvious reasons: they are woody, they produce no edible fruit, and their 
leaves and roots are also inedible. Of the 200,000 wild plant species, only 
a few thousand are eaten by humans, and just a few hundred of these have 
been more or less domesticated. Even of these several hundred crops, most 
provide minor supplements to our diet and would not by themselves have 
sufficed to support the rise of civilizations. A mere dozen species account 
for over 80 percent of the modern world's annual tonnage of all crops. 
Those dozen blockbusters are the cereals wheat, corn, rice, barley, and 
sorghum; the pulse soybean; the roots or tubers potato, manioc, and sweet 
potato; the sugar sources sugarcane and sugar beet; and the fruit banana. 
Cereal crops alone now account for more than half of the calories con- 
sumed by the world's human populations. With so few major crops in the 
world, all of them domesticated thousands of years ago, it's less surprising 
that many areas of the world had no wild native plants at all of outstand- 
ing potential. Our failure to domesticate even a single major new food 


plant in modern times suggests that ancient peoples really may have 
explored virtually all useful wild plants and domesticated all the ones 
worth domesticating. 

Yet some of the world's failures to domesticate wild plants remain hard 
to explain. The most flagrant cases concern plants that were domesticated 
in one area but not in another. We can thus be sure that it was indeed 
possible to develop the wild plant into a useful crop, and we have to ask 
why that wild species was not domesticated in certain areas. 

A typical puzzling example comes from Africa. The important cereal 
sorghum was domesticated in Africa's Sahel zone, just south of the Sahara. 
It also occurs as a wild plant as far south as southern Africa, yet neither it 
nor any other plant was cultivated in southern Africa until the arrival of 
the whole crop package that Bantu farmers brought from Africa north of 
the equator 2,000 years ago. Why did the native peoples of southern 
Africa not domesticate sorghum for themselves? 

Equally puzzling is the failure of people to domesticate flax in its wild 
range in western Europe and North Africa, or einkorn wheat in its wild 
range in the southern Balkans. Since these two plants were among the first 
eight crops of the Fertile Crescent, they were presumably among the most 
readily domesticated of all wild plants. They were adopted for cultivation 
in those areas of their wild range outside the Fertile Crescent as soon as 
they arrived with the whole package of food production from the Fertile 
Crescent. Why, then, had peoples of those outlying areas not already 
begun to grow them of their own accord? 

Similarly, the four earliest domesticated fruits of the Fertile Crescent all 
had wild ranges stretching far beyond the eastern Mediterranean, where 
they appear to have been first domesticated: the olive, grape, and fig 
occurred west to Italy and Spain and Northwest Africa, while the date 
palm extended to all of North Africa and Arabia. These four were evi- 
dently among the easiest to domesticate of all wild fruits. Why did peoples 
outside the Fertile Crescent fail to domesticate them, and begin to grow 
them only when they had already been domesticated in the eastern Medi- 
terranean and arrived thence as crops? 

Other striking examples involve wild species that were not domesti- 
cated in areas where food production never arose spontaneously, even 
though those wild species had close relatives domesticated elsewhere. For 
example, the olive Olea europea was domesticated in the eastern Mediter- 
ranean. There are about 40 other species of olives in tropical and southern 

1 3 4 


Africa, southern Asia, and eastern Australia, some of them closely related 
to Olea europea, but none of them was ever domesticated. Similarly, while 
a wild apple species and a wild grape species were domesticated in Eurasia, 
there are many related wild apple and grape species in North America, 
some of which have in modern times been hybridized with the crops 
derived from their wild Eurasian counterparts in order to improve those 
crops. Why, then, didn't Native Americans domesticate those apparently 
useful apples and grapes themselves? 

One can go on and on with such examples. But there is a fatal flaw in 
this reasoning: plant domestication is not a matter of hunter-gatherers' 
domesticating a single plant and otherwise carrying on unchanged with 
their nomadic lifestyle. Suppose that North American wild apples really 
would have evolved into a terrific crop if only Indian hunter-gatherers had 
settled down and cultivated them. But nomadic hunter-gatherers would 
not throw over their traditional way of life, settle in villages, and start 
tending apple orchards unless many other domesticable wild plants and 
animals were available to make a sedentary food-producing existence 
competitive with a hunting-gathering existence. 

How, in short, do we assess the potential of an entire local flora for 
domestication? For those Native Americans who failed to domesticate 
North American apples, did the problem really lie with the Indians or with 
the apples? 

In order to answer this question, we shall now compare three regions 
that lie at opposite extremes among centers of independent domestication. 
As we have seen, one of them, the Fertile Crescent, was perhaps the earliest 
center of food production in the world, and the site of origin of several of 
the modern world's major crops and almost all of its major domesticated 
animals. The other two regions, New Guinea and the eastern United 
States, did domesticate local crops, but these crops were very few in vari- 
ety, only one of them gained worldwide importance, and the resulting food 
package failed to support extensive development of human technology and 
political organization as in the Fertile Crescent. In the light of this compar- 
ison, we shall ask: Did the flora and environment of the Fertile Crescent 
have clear advantages over those of New Guinea and the eastern United 

ONE OF THE central facts of human history is the early importance of 
the part of Southwest Asia known as the Fertile Crescent (because of the 


crescent-like shape of its uplands on a map: see Figure 8.1). That area 
appears to have been the earliest site for a whole string of developments, 
including cities, writing, empires, and what we term (for better or worse) 
civilization. All those developments sprang, in turn, from the dense human 
populations, stored food surpluses, and feeding of nonfarming specialists 
made possible by the rise of food production in the form of crop cultiva- 
tion and animal husbandry. Food production was the first of those major 
innovations to appear in the Fertile Crescent. Hence any attempt to under- 
stand the origins of the modern world must come to grips with the ques- 
tion why the Fertile Crescent's domesticated plants and animals gave it 
such a potent head start. 

Fortunately, the Fertile Crescent is by far the most intensively studied 
and best understood part of the globe as regards the rise of agriculture. 
For most crops domesticated in or near the Fertile Crescent, the wild plant 
ancestor has been identified; its close relationship to the crop has been 
proven by genetic and chromosomal studies; its wild geographic range is 
known; its changes under domestication have been identified and are often 
understood at the level of single genes; those changes can be observed in 

Figure 8.1. The Fertile Crescent, encompassing sites of food production 
before 7000 B.C. 


successive layers of the archaeological record; and the approximate place 
and time of domestication are known. I don't deny that other areas, nota- 
bly China, also had advantages as early sites of domestication, but those 
advantages and the resulting development of crops can be specified in 
much more detail for the Fertile Crescent. 

One advantage of the Fertile Crescent is that it lies within a zone of so- 
called Mediterranean climate, a climate characterized by mild, wet winters 
and long, hot, dry summers. That climate selects for plant species able to 
survive the long dry season and to resume growth rapidly upon the return 
of the rains. Many Fertile Crescent plants, especially species of cereals and 
pulses, have adapted in a way that renders them useful to humans: they are 
annuals, meaning that the plant itself dries up and dies in the dry season. 

Within their mere one year of life, annual plants inevitably remain small 
herbs. Many of them instead put much of their energy into producing big 
seeds, which remain dormant during the dry season and are then ready to 
sprout when the rains come. Annual plants therefore waste little energy on 
making inedible wood or fibrous stems, like the body of trees and bushes. 
But many of the big seeds, notably those of the annual cereals and pulses, 
are edible by humans. They constitute 6 of the modern world's 12 major 
crops. In contrast, if you live near a forest and look out your window, the 
plant species that you see will tend to be trees and shrubs, most of whose 
body you cannot eat and which put much less of their energy into edible 
seeds. Of course, some forest trees in areas of wet climate do produce big 
edible seeds, but these seeds are not adapted to surviving a long dry season 
and hence to long storage by humans. 

A second advantage of the Fertile Crescent flora is that the wild ances- 
tors of many Fertile Crescent crops were already abundant and highly pro- 
ductive, occurring in large stands whose value must have been obvious to 
hunter-gatherers. Experimental studies in which botanists have collected 
seeds from such natural stands of wild cereals, much as hunter-gatherers 
must have been doing over 10,000 years ago, show that annual harvests 
of up to nearly a ton of seeds per hectare can be obtained, yielding 50 
kilocalories of food energy for only one kilocalorie of work expended. By 
collecting huge quantities of wild cereals in a short time when the seeds 
were ripe, and storing them for use as food through the rest of the year, 
some hunting-gathering peoples of the Fertile Crescent had already settled 
down in permanent villages even before they began to cultivate plants. 

Since Fertile Crescent cereals were so productive in the wild, few addi- 


tional changes had to be made in them under cultivation. As we discussed 
in the preceding chapter, the principal changes — the breakdown of the 
natural systems of seed dispersal and of germination inhibition — evolved 
automatically and quickly as soon as humans began to cultivate the seeds 
in fields. The wild ancestors of our wheat and barley crops look so similar 
to the crops themselves that the identity of the ancestor has never been in 
doubt. Because of this ease of domestication, big-seeded annuals were the 
first, or among the first, crops developed not only in the Fertile Crescent 
but also in China and the Sahel. 

Contrast this quick evolution of wheat and barley with the story of 
corn, the leading cereal crop of the New World. Corn's probable ancestor, 
a wild plant known as teosinte, looks so different from corn in its seed and 
flower structures that even its role as ancestor has been hotly debated by 
botanists for a long time. Teosinte's value as food would not have 
impressed hunter-gatherers: it was less productive in the wild than wild 
wheat, it produced much less seed than did the corn eventually developed 
from it, and it enclosed its seeds in inedible hard coverings. For teosinte to 
become a useful crop, it had to undergo drastic changes in its reproductive 
biology, to increase greatly its investment in seeds, and to lose those rock- 
like coverings of its seeds. Archaeologists are still vigorously debating how 
many centuries or millennia of crop development in the Americas were 
required for ancient corn cobs to progress from a tiny size up to the size 
of a human thumb, but it seems clear that several thousand more years 
were then required for them to reach modern sizes. That contrast between 
the immediate virtues of wheat and barley and the difficulties posed by 
teosinte may have been a significant factor in the differing developments 
of New World and Eurasian human societies. 

A third advantage of the Fertile Crescent flora is that it includes a high 
percentage of hermaphroditic "selfers" — that is, plants that usually polli- 
nate themselves but that are occasionally cross-pollinated. Recall that most 
wild plants either are regularly cross-pollinated hermaphrodites or consist 
of separate male and female individuals that inevitably depend on another 
individual for pollination. Those facts of reproductive biology vexed early 
farmers, because, as soon as they had located a productive mutant plant, 
its offspring would cross-breed with other plant individuals and thereby 
lose their inherited advantage. As a result, most crops belong to the small 
percentage of wild plants that either are hermaphrodites usually pollinat- 
ing themselves or else reproduce without sex by propagating vegetatively 


(for example, by a root that genetically duplicates the parent plant). Thus, 
the high percentage of hermaphroditic selfers in the Fertile Crescent flora 
aided early farmers, because it meant that a high percentage of the wild 
flora had a reproductive biology convenient for humans. 

Selfers were also convenient for early farmers in that they occasionally 
did become cross-pollinated, thereby generating new varieties among 
which to select. That occasional cross-pollination occurred not only 
between individuals of the same species, but also between related species 
to produce interspecific hybrids. One such hybrid among Fertile Crescent 
selfers, bread wheat, became the most valuable crop in the modern world. 

Of the first eight significant crops to have been domesticated in the Fer- 
tile Crescent, all were selfers. Of the three selfer cereals among them — 
einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, and barley — the wheats offered the addi- 
tional advantage of a high protein content, 8-14 percent. In contrast, the 
most important cereal crops of eastern Asia and of the New World — rice 
and corn, respectively — had a lower protein content that posed significant 
nutritional problems. 

THOSE WERE SOME of the advantages that the Fertile Crescent's flora 
afforded the first farmers: it included an unusually high percentage of wild 
plants suitable for domestication. However, the Mediterranean climate 
zone of the Fertile Crescent extends westward through much of southern 
Europe and northwestern Africa. There are also zones of similar Mediter- 
ranean climates in four other parts of the world: California, Chile, south- 
western Australia, and South Africa (Figure 8.2). Yet those other 
Mediterranean zones not only failed to rival the Fertile Crescent as early 
sites of food production; they never gave rise to indigenous agriculture at 
all. What advantage did that particular Mediterranean zone of western 
Eurasia enjoy? 

It turns out that it, and especially its Fertile Crescent portion, possessed 
at least five advantages over other Mediterranean zones. First, western 
Eurasia has by far the world's largest zone of Mediterranean climate. As a 
result, it has a high diversity of wild plant and animal species, higher than 
in the comparatively tiny Mediterranean zones of southwestern Australia 
and Chile. Second, among Mediterranean zones, western Eurasia's experi- 
ences the greatest climatic variation from season to season and year to 
year. That variation favored the evolution, among the flora, of an espe- 


Figure 8.2. The world's zones of Mediterranean climate. 

daily high percentage of annual plants. The combination of these two fac- 
tors — a high diversity of species and a high percentage of annuals — means 
that western Eurasia's Mediterranean zone is the one with by far the high- 
est diversity of annuals. 

The significance of that botanical wealth for humans is illustrated by 
the geographer Mark Blunder's studies of wild grass distributions. Among 
the world's thousands of wild grass species, Blumler tabulated the 56 with 
the largest seeds, the cream of nature's crop: the grass species with seeds 
at least 10 times heavier than the median grass species (see Table 8.1). 
Virtually all of them are native to Mediterranean zones or other seasonally 
dry environments. Furthermore, they are overwhelmingly concentrated in 
the Fertile Crescent or other parts of western Eurasia's Mediterranean 
zone, which offered a huge selection to incipient farmers: about 32 of the 
world's 56 prize wild grasses! Specifically, barley and emmer wheat, the 
two earliest important crops of the Fertile Crescent, rank respectively 3rd 
and 13th in seed size among those top 56. In contrast, the Mediterranean 
zone of Chile offered only two of those species, California and southern 
Africa just one each, and southwestern Australia none at all. That fact 
alone goes a long way toward explaining the course of human history. 

A third advantage of the Fertile Crescent's Mediterranean zone is that 


TABLE 8.1 World Distribution of Large-Seeded Grass Species 


Number of Species 

west /\sia, iLuropc, rNurin rvrnca 


ivicuncrranean zone 




East Asia 

Sub-Saharan Africa 



North America 





South America 


Northern Australia 




Table 12. 1 of Mark Blunder's Ph.D. dissertation, "Seed Weight and Environment in Medi- 
terranean-type Grasslands in California and Israel" (University of California, Berkeley, 
1992), listed the world's 56 heaviest-seeded wild grass species (excluding bamboos) for which 
data were available. Grain weight in those species ranged from 10 milligrams to over 40 
milligrams, about 10 times greater than the median value for all of the world's grass species. 
Those 56 species make up less than 1 percent of the world's grass species. This table shows 
that these prize grasses are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Mediterranean zone of west- 
ern Eurasia. 

it provides a wide range of altitudes and topographies within a short dis- 
tance. Its range of elevations, from the lowest spot on Earth (the Dead 
Sea) to mountains of 18,000 feet (near Teheran), ensures a corresponding 
variety of environments, hence a high diversity of the wild plants serving 
as potential ancestors of crops. Those mountains are in proximity to gentle 
lowlands with rivers, flood plains, and deserts suitable for irrigation agri- 
culture. In contrast, the Mediterranean zones of southwestern Australia 
and, to a lesser degree, of South Africa and western Europe offer a nar- 
rower range of altitudes, habitats, and topographies. 

The range of altitudes in the Fertile Crescent meant staggered harvest 
seasons: plants at higher elevations produced seeds somewhat later than 
plants at lower elevations. As a result, hunter-gatherers could move up 
a mountainside harvesting grain seeds as they matured, instead of being 
overwhelmed by a concentrated harvest season at a single altitude, where 
all grains matured simultaneously. When cultivation began, it was a simple 


matter for the first farmers to take the seeds of wild cereals growing on 
hillsides and dependent on unpredictable rains, and to plant those seeds 
in the damp valley bottoms, where they would grow reliably and be less 
dependent on rain. 

The Fertile Crescent's biological diversity over small distances contrib- 
uted to a fourth advantage — its wealth in ancestors not only of valuable 
crops but also of domesticated big mammals. As we shall see, there were 
few or no wild mammal species suitable for domestication in the other 
Mediterranean zones of California, Chile, southwestern Australia, and 
South Africa. In contrast, four species of big mammals — the goat, sheep, 
pig, and cow — were domesticated very early in the Fertile Crescent, possi- 
bly earlier than any other animal except the dog anywhere else in the 
world. Those species remain today four of the world's five most important 
domesticated mammals (Chapter 9). But their wild ancestors were com- 
monest in slightly different parts of the Fertile Crescent, with the result 
that the four species were domesticated in different places: sheep possibly 
in the central part, goats either in the eastern part at higher elevations (the 
Zagros Mountains of Iran) or in the southwestern part (the Levant), pigs 
in the north-central part, and cows in the western part, including Anatolia. 
Nevertheless, even though the areas of abundance of these four wild pro- 
genitors thus differed, all four lived in sufficiently close proximity that they 
were readily transferred after domestication from one part of the Fertile 
Crescent to another, and the whole region ended up with all four species. 

Agriculture was launched in the Fertile Crescent by the early domestica- 
tion of eight crops, termed "founder crops" (because they founded agricul- 
ture in the region and possibly in the world). Those eight founders were 
the cereals emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, and barley; the pulses lentil, pea, 
chickpea, and bitter vetch; and the fiber crop flax. Of these eight, only 
two, flax and barley, range in the wild at all widely outside the Fertile 
Crescent and Anatolia. Two of the founders had very small ranges in the 
wild, chickpea being confined to southeastern Turkey and emmer wheat 
to the Fertile Crescent itself. Thus, agriculture could arise in the Fertile 
Crescent from domestication of locally available wild plants, without hav- 
ing to wait for the arrival of crops derived from wild plants domesticated 
elsewhere. Conversely, two of the eight founder crops could not have been 
domesticated anywhere in the world except in the Fertile Crescent, since 
they did not occur wild elsewhere. 

Thanks to this availability of suitable wild mammals and plants, early 
peoples of the Fertile Crescent could quickly assemble a potent and bal- 


anced biological package for intensive food production. That package 
comprised three cereals, as the main carbohydrate sources; four pulses, 
with 20-25 percent protein, and four domestic animals, as the main pro- 
tein sources, supplemented by the generous protein content of wheat; and 
flax as a source of fiber and oil (termed linseed oil: flax seeds are about 40 
percent oil). Eventually, thousands of years after the beginnings of animal 
domestication and food production, the animals also began to be used for 
milk, wool, plowing, and transport. Thus, the crops and animals of the 
Fertile Crescent's first farmers came to meet humanity's basic economic 
needs: carbohydrate, protein, fat, clothing, traction, and transport. 

A final advantage of early food production in the Fertile Crescent is that 
it may have faced less competition from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle than 
that in some other areas, including the western Mediterranean. Southwest 
Asia has few large rivers and only a short coastline, providing relatively 
meager aquatic resources (in the form of river and coastal fish and shell- 
fish). One of the important mammal species hunted for meat, the gazelle, 
originally lived in huge herds but was overexploited by the growing human 
population and reduced to low numbers. Thus, the food production pack- 
age quickly became superior to the hunter-gatherer package. Sedentary 
villages based on cereals were already in existence before the rise of food 
production and predisposed those hunter-gatherers to agriculture and 
herding. In the Fertile Crescent the transition from hunting-gathering to 
food production took place relatively fast: as late as 9000 B.C. people still 
had no crops and domestic animals and were entirely dependent on wild 
foods, but by 6000 B.C. some societies were almost completely dependent 
on crops and domestic animals. 

The situation in Mesoamerica contrasts strongly: that area provided 
only two domesticable animals (the turkey and the dog), whose meat yield 
was far lower than that of cows, sheep, goats, and pigs; and corn, Meso-> 
america's staple grain, was, as I've already explained, difficult to domesti- 
cate and perhaps slow to develop. As a result, domestication may not have 
begun in Mesoamerica until around 3500 B.C. (the date remains very 
uncertain); those first developments were undertaken by people who were 
still nomadic hunter-gatherers; and settled villages did not arise there until 
around 1500 B.C. 

IN ALL THIS discussion of the Fertile Crescent's advantages for the early 
rise of food production, we have not had to invoke any supposed advan- 


tages of Fertile Crescent peoples themselves. Indeed, I am unaware of any- 
one's even seriously suggesting any supposed distinctive biological features 
of the region's peoples that might have contributed to the potency of its 
food production package. Instead, we have seen that the many distinctive 
features of the Fertile Crescent's climate, environment, wild plants, and 
animals together provide a convincing explanation. 

Since the food production packages arising indigenously in New Guinea 
and in the eastern United States were considerably less potent, might the 
explanation there lie with the peoples of those areas? Before turning to 
those regions, however, we must consider two related questions arising in 
regard to any area of the world where food production never developed 
independently or else resulted in a less potent package. First, do hunter- 
gatherers and incipient farmers really know well all locally available wild 
species and their uses, or might they have overlooked potential ancestors 
of valuable crops? Second, if they do know their local plants and animals, 
do they exploit that knowledge to domesticate the most useful available 
species, or do cultural factors keep them from doing so? 

As regards the first question, an entire field of science, termed ethnobiol-i 
ogy, studies peoples' knowledge of the wild plants and animals in their 
environment. Such studies have concentrated especially on the world's few 
surviving hunting-gathering peoples, and on farming peoples who still 
depend heavily on wild foods and natural products. The studies generally 
show that such peoples are walking encyclopedias of natural history, with 
individual names (in their local language) for as many as a thousand or 
more plant and animal species, and with detailed knowledge of those spe- 
cies' biological characteristics, distribution, and potential uses. As people 
become increasingly dependent on domesticated plants and animals, this 
traditional knowledge gradually loses its value and becomes lost, until one 
arrives at modern supermarket shoppers who could not distinguish a wild 
grass from a wild pulse. 

Here's a typical example. For the last 33 years, while conducting biolog- 
ical exploration in New Guinea, I have been spending my field time there 
constantly in the company of New Guineans who still use wild plants and 
animals extensively. One day, when my companions of the Fore tribe and 
I were starving in the jungle because another tribe was blocking our return 
to our supply base, a Fore man returned to camp with a large rucksack 
full of mushrooms he had found, and started to roast them. Dinner at 
last! But then I had an unsettling thought: what if the mushrooms were 

1 4 4 


I patiently explained to my Fore companions that I had read about some 
mushrooms' being poisonous, that I had heard of even expert American 
mushroom collectors' dying because of the difficulty of distinguishing safe 
from dangerous mushrooms, and that although we were all hungry, it just 
wasn't worth the risk. At that point my companions got angry and told 
me to shut up and listen while they explained some things to me. After I 
had been quizzing them for years about names of hundreds of trees and 
birds, how could I insult them by assuming they didn't have names for 
different mushrooms? Only Americans could be so stupid as to confuse 
poisonous mushrooms with safe ones. They went on to lecture me about 
29 types of edible mushroom species, each species' name in the Fore lan- 
guage, and where in the forest one should look for it. This one, the tanti, 
grew on trees, and it was delicious and perfectly edible. 

Whenever I have taken New Guineans with me to other parts of their 
island, they regularly talk about local plants and animals with other New 
Guineans whom they meet, and they gather potentially useful plants and 
bring them back to their home villages to try planting them. My experi- 
ences with New Guineans are paralleled by those of ethnobiologists study- 
ing traditional peoples elsewhere. However, all such peoples either 
practice at least some food production or are the partly acculturated last 
remnants of the world's former hunter-gatherer societies. Knowledge of 
wild species was presumably even more detailed before the rise of food 
production, when everyone on Earth still depended entirely on wild species 
for food. The first farmers were heirs to that knowledge, accumulated 
through tens of thousands of years of nature observation by biologically 
modern humans living in intimate dependence on the natural world. It 
therefore seems extremely unlikely that wild species of potential value 
would have escaped the notice of the first farmers. 

The other, related question is whether ancient hunter-gatherers and 
farmers similarly put their ethnobiological knowledge to good use in 
selecting wild plants to gather and eventually to cultivate. One test comes 
from an archaeological site at the edge of the Euphrates Valley in Syria, 
called Tell Abu Hureyra. Between 10,000 and 9000 B.C. the people living 
there may already have been residing year-round in villages, but they were 
still hunter-gatherers; crop cultivation began only in the succeeding millen- 
nium. The archaeologists Gordon Hillman, Susan Colledge, and David 
Harris retrieved large quantities of charred plant remains from the site, 
probably representing discarded garbage of wild plants gathered elsewhere 


and brought to the site by its residents. The scientists analyzed over 700 
samples, each containing an average of over 500 identifiable seeds belong- 
ing to over 70 plant species. It turned out that the villagers were collecting 
a prodigious variety (157 species!) of plants identified by their charred 
seeds, not to mention other plants that cannot now be identified. 

Were those naive villagers collecting every type of seed plant that they 
found, bringing it home, poisoning themselves on most of the species, and 
nourishing themselves from only a few species? No, they were not so silly. 
While 157 species sounds like indiscriminate collecting, many more species 
growing wild in the vicinity were absent from the charred remains. The 
157 selected species fall into three categories. Many of them have seeds 
that are nonpoisonous and immediately edible. Others, such as pulses and 
members of the mustard family, have toxic seeds, but the toxins are easily 
removed, leaving the seeds edible. A few seeds belong to species tradition- 
ally used as sources of dyes or medicine. The many wild species not repre- 
sented among the 157 selected are ones that would have been useless or 
harmful to people, including all of the most toxic weed species in the envi- 

Thus, the hunter-gatherers of Tell Abu Hureyra were not wasting time 
and endangering themselves by collecting wild plants indiscriminately. 
Instead, they evidently knew the local wild plants as intimately as do mod- 
ern New Guineans, and they used that knowledge to select and bring home 
only the most useful available seed plants. But those gathered seeds would 
have constituted the material for the unconscious first steps of plant 

My other example of how ancient peoples apparently used their ethno-> 
biological knowledge to good effect comes from the Jordan Valley in the 
ninth millennium B.C., the period of the earliest crop cultivation there. The 
valley's first domesticated cereals were barley and emmer wheat, which are 
still among the world's most productive crops today. But, as at Tell Abu 
Hureyra, hundreds of other seed-bearing wild plant species must have 
grown in the vicinity, and a hundred or more of them would have been 
edible and gathered before the rise of plant domestication. What was it 
about barley and emmer wheat that caused them to be the first crops? 
Were those first Jordan Valley farmers botanical ignoramuses who didn't 
know what they were doing? Or were barley and emmer wheat actually 
the best of the local wild cereals that they could have selected? 

Two Israeli scientists, Ofer Bar-Yosef and Mordechai Kislev, tackled this 


question by examining the wild grass species still growing wild in the val- 
ley today. Leaving aside species with small or unpalatable seeds, they 
picked out 23 of the most palatable and largest-seeded wild grasses. Not 
surprisingly, barley and emmer wheat were on that list. 

But it wasn't true that the 21 other candidates would have been equally 
useful. Among those 23, barley and emmer wheat proved to be the best by 
many criteria. Emmer wheat has the biggest seeds and barley the second 
biggest. In the wild, barley is one of the 4 most abundant of the 23 species, 
while emmer wheat is of medium abundance. Barley has the further advan- 
tage that its genetics and morphology permit it to evolve quickly the useful 
changes in seed dispersal and germination inhibition that we discussed in 
the preceding chapter. Emmer wheat, however, has compensating virtues: 
it can be gathered more efficiently than barley, and it is unusual among 
cereals in that its seeds do not adhere to husks. As for the other 21 species, 
their drawbacks include smaller seeds, in many cases lower abundance, 
and in some cases their being perennial rather than annual plants, with the 
consequence that they would have evolved only slowly under domestica- 

Thus, the first farmers in the Jordan Valley selected the 2 very best of 
the 23 best wild grass species available to them. Of course, the evolution- 
ary changes (following cultivation) in seed dispersal and germination inhi- 
bition would have been unforeseen consequences of what those first 
farmers were doing. But their initial selection of barley and emmer wheat 
rather than other cereals to collect, bring home, and cultivate would have 
been conscious and based on the easily detected criteria of seed size, palat-> 
ability, and abundance. 

This example from the Jordan Valley, like that from Tell Abu Hureyra, 
illustrates that the first farmers used their detailed knowledge of local spe- 
cies to their own benefit. Knowing far more about local plants than all but 
a handful of modern professional botanists, they would hardly have failed 
to cultivate any useful wild plant species that was comparably suitable for 

WE CAN NOW examine what local farmers, in two parts of the world 
(New Guinea and the eastern United States) with indigenous but appar- 
ently deficient food production systems compared to that of the Fertile 
Crescent, actually did when more-productive crops arrived from else- 


where. If it turned out that such crops did not become adopted for cultural 
or other reasons, we would be left with a nagging doubt. Despite all our 
reasoning so far, we would still have to suspect that the local wild flora 
harbored some ancestor of a potential valuable crop that local farmers 
failed to exploit because of similar cultural factors. These two examples 
will also demonstrate in detail a fact critical to history: that indigenous 
crops from different parts of the globe were not equally productive. 

New Guinea, the largest island in the world after Greenland, lies just 
north of Australia and near the equator. Because of its tropical location 
and great diversity in topography and habitats, New Guinea is rich in both 
plant and animal species, though less so than continental tropical areas 
because it is an island. People have been living in New Guinea for at least 
40,000 years — much longer than in the Americas, and slightly longer than 
anatomically modern peoples have been living in western Europe. Thus, 
New Guineans have had ample opportunity to get to know their local flora 
and fauna. Were they motivated to apply this knowledge to developing 
food production? 

I mentioned already that the adoption of food production involved a 
competition between the food producing and the hunting-gathering life- 
styles. Hunting-gathering is not so rewarding in New Guinea as to remove 
the motivation to develop food production. In particular, modern New 
Guinea hunters suffer from the crippling disadvantage of a dearth of wild 
game: there is no native land animal larger than a 100-pound flightless 
bird (the cassowary) and a 50-pound kangaroo. Lowland New Guineans 
on the coast do obtain much fish and shellfish, and some lowlanders in the 
interior still live today as hunter-gatherers, subsisting especially on wild 
sago palms. But no peoples still live as hunter-gatherers in the New Guinea 
highlands; all modern highlanders are instead farmers who use wild foods 
only to supplement their diets. When highlanders go into the forest on 
hunting trips, they take along garden-grown vegetables to feed themselves. 
If they have the misfortune to run out of those provisions, even they starve 
to death despite their detailed knowledge of locally available wild foods. 
Since the hunting-gathering lifestyle is thus nonviable in much of modern 
New Guinea, it comes as no surprise that all New Guinea highlanders and 
most lowlanders today are settled farmers with sophisticated systems of 
food production. Extensive, formerly forested areas of the highlands were 
converted by traditional New Guinea farmers to fenced, drained, inten- 
sively managed field systems supporting dense human populations. 


Archaeological evidence shows that the origins of New Guinea agricul- 
ture are ancient, dating to around 7000 B.C. At those early dates all the 
landmasses surrounding New Guinea were still occupied exclusively by 
hunter-gatherers, so this ancient agriculture must have developed indepen- 
dently in New Guinea. While unequivocal remains of crops have not been 
recovered from those early fields, they are likely to have included some of 
the same crops that were being grown in New Guinea at the time of Euro- 
pean colonization and that are now known to have been domesticated 
locally from wild New Guinea ancestors. Foremost among these local 
domesticates is the modern world's leading crop, sugarcane, of which the 
annual tonnage produced today nearly equals that of the number two and 
number three crops combined (wheat and corn). Other crops of 
undoubted New Guinea origin are a group of bananas known as Aus-< 
tralimusa bananas, the nut tree Canarium indicum, and giant swamp taro, 
as well as various edible grass stems, roots, and green vegetables. The 
breadfruit tree and the root crops yams and (ordinary) taro may also be 
New Guinean domesticates, although that conclusion remains uncertain 
because their wild ancestors are not confined to New Guinea but are dis- 
tributed from New Guinea to Southeast Asia. At present we lack evidence 
that could resolve the question whether they were domesticated in South- 
east Asia, as traditionally assumed, or independently or even only in New 

However, it turns out that New Guinea's biota suffered from three 
severe limitations. First, no cereal crops were domesticated in New 
Guinea, whereas several vitally important ones were domesticated in the 
Fertile Crescent, Sahel, and China. In its emphasis instead on root and tree 
crops, New Guinea carries to an extreme a trend seen in agricultural sys- 
tems in other wet tropical areas (the Amazon, tropical West Africa, and 
Southeast Asia), whose farmers also emphasized root crops but did man- 
age to come up with at least two cereals (Asian rice and a giant-seeded 
Asian cereal called Job's tears). A likely reason for the failure of cereal 
agriculture to arise in New Guinea is a glaring deficiency of the wild start- 
ing material: not one of the world's 56 largest-seeded wild grasses is native 

Second, the New Guinea fauna included no domesticable large mammal 
species whatsoever. The sole domestic animals of modern New Guinea, 
the pig and chicken and dog, arrived from Southeast Asia by way of Indo- 
nesia within the last several thousand years. As a result, while New Guinea 


lowlanders obtain protein from the fish they catch, New Guinea highland 
farmer populations suffer from severe protein limitation, because the sta- 
ple crops that provide most of their calories (taro and sweet potato) are 
low in protein. Taro, for example, consists of barely 1 percent protein, 
much worse than even white rice, and far below the levels of the Fertile 
Crescent's wheats and pulses (8-14 percent and 20-25 percent protein, 

Children in the New Guinea highlands have the swollen bellies charac- 
teristic of a high-bulk but protein-deficient diet. New Guineans old and 
young routinely eat mice, spiders, frogs, and other small animals that peo- 
ples elsewhere with access to large domestic mammals or large wild game 
species do not bother to eat. Protein starvation is probably also the ulti- 
mate reason why cannibalism was widespread in traditional New Guinea 
highland societies. 

Finally, in former times New Guinea's available root crops were limiting 
for calories as well as for protein, because they do not grow well at the 
high elevations where many New Guineans live today. Many centuries 
ago, however, a new root crop of ultimately South American origin, the 
sweet potato, reached New Guinea, probably by way of the Philippines, 
where it had been introduced by Spaniards. Compared with taro and other 
presumably older New Guinea root crops, the sweet potato can be grown 
up to higher elevations, grows more quickly, and gives higher yields per 
acre cultivated and per hour of labor. The result of the sweet potato's 
arrival was a highland population explosion. That is, even though people 
had been farming in the New Guinea highlands for many thousands of 
years before sweet potatoes were introduced, the available local crops had 
limited them in the population densities they could attain, and in the eleva- 
tions they could occupy. 

In short, New Guinea offers an instructive contrast to the Fertile Cres- 
cent. Like hunter-gatherers of the Fertile Crescent, those of New Guinea 
did evolve food production independently. However, their indigenous food 
production was restricted by the local absence of domesticable cereals, 
pulses, and animals, by the resulting protein deficiency in the highlands, 
and by limitations of the locally available root crops at high elevations. 
Yet New Guineans themselves know as much about the wild plants and 
animals available to them as any peoples on Earth today. They can be 
expected to have discovered and tested any wild plant species worth 
domesticating. They are perfectly capable of recognizing useful additions 


to their crop larder, as is shown by their exuberant adoption of the sweet 
potato when it arrived. That same lesson is being driven home again in 
New Guinea today, as those tribes with preferential access to introduced 
new crops and livestock (or with the cultural willingness to adopt them) 
expand at the expense of tribes without that access or willingness. Thus, 
the limits on indigenous food production in New Guinea had nothing to 
do with New Guinea peoples, and everything with the New Guinea biota 
and environment. 

OUR OTHER EXAMPLE of indigenous agriculture apparently con- 
strained by the local flora comes from the eastern United States. Like New 
Guinea, that area supported independent domestication of local wild 
plants. However, early developments are much better understood for the 
eastern United States than for New Guinea: the crops grown by the earliest 
farmers have been identified, and the dates and crop sequences of local 
domestication are known. Well before other crops began to arrive from 
elsewhere, Native Americans settled in eastern U.S. river valleys and devel- 
oped intensified food production based on local crops. Hence they were in 
a position to take advantage of the most promising wild plants. Which 
ones did they actually cultivate, and how did the resulting local crop pack- 
age compare with the Fertile Crescent's founder package? 

It turns out that the eastern U.S. founder crops were four plants domes- 
ticated in the period 2500-1500 B.C., a full 6,000 years after wheat and 
barley domestication in the Fertile Crescent. A local species of squash pro- 
vided small containers, as well as yielding edible seeds. The remaining 
three founders were grown solely for their edible seeds (sunflower, a daisy 
relative called sumpweed, and a distant relative of spinach called goose- 

But four seed crops and a container fall far short of a complete food 
production package. For 2,000 years those founder crops served only as 
minor dietary supplements while eastern U.S. Native Americans continued 
to depend mainly on wild foods, especially wild mammals and waterbirds, 
fish, shellfish, and nuts. Farming did not supply a major part of their diet 
until the period 500-200 B.C., after three more seed crops (knotweed, 
maygrass, and little barley) had been brought into cultivation. 

A modern nutritionist would have applauded those seven eastern U.S. 


crops. All of them were high in protein — 17-32 percent, compared with 
8-14 percent for wheat, 9 percent for corn, and even lower for barley and 
white rice. Two of them, sunflower and sumpweed, were also high in oil 
(45-47 percent). Sumpweed, in particular, would have been a nutritionist's 
ultimate dream, being 32 percent protein and 45 percent oil. Why aren't 
we still eating those dream foods today? 

Alas, despite their nutritional advantage, most of these eastern U.S. 
crops suffered from serious disadvantages in other respects. Goosefoot, 
knotweed, little barley, and maygrass had tiny seeds, with volumes only 
one-tenth that of wheat and barley seeds. Worse yet, sumpweed is a wind- 
pollinated relative of ragweed, the notorious hayfever-causing plant. Like 
ragweed's, sumpweed's pollen can cause hayfever where the plant occurs 
in abundant stands. If that doesn't kill your enthusiasm for becoming a 
sumpweed farmer, be aware that it has a strong odor objectionable to 
some people and that handling it can cause skin irritation. 

Mexican crops finally began to reach the eastern United States by trade 
routes after A.D. 1. Corn arrived around A.D. 200, but its role remained 
very minor for many centuries. Finally, around A.D. 900 a new variety of 
corn adapted to North America's short summers appeared, and the arrival 
of beans around A.D. 1 1 00 completed Mexico's crop trinity of corn, beans, 
and squash. Eastern U.S. farming became greatly intensified, and densely 
populated chiefdoms developed along the Mississippi River and its tribu- 
taries. In some areas the original local domesticates were retained along- 
side the far more productive Mexican trinity, but in other areas the trinity 
replaced them completely. No European ever saw sumpweed growing in 
Indian gardens, because it had disappeared as a crop by the time that Euro- 
pean colonization of the Americas began, in A.D. 1492. Among all those 
ancient eastern U.S. crop specialties, only two (sunflower and eastern 
squash) have been able to compete with crops domesticated elsewhere and 
are still grown today. Our modern acorn squashes and summer squashes 
are derived from those American squashes domesticated thousands of 
years ago. 

Thus, like the case of New Guinea, that of the eastern United States is 
instructive. A priori, the region might have seemed a likely one to support 
productive indigenous agriculture. It has rich soils, reliable moderate rain- 
fall, and a suitable climate that sustains bountiful agriculture today. The 
flora is a species-rich one that includes productive wild nut trees (oak and 


hickory). Local Native Americans did develop an agriculture based on 
local domesticates, did thereby support themselves in villages, and even 
developed a cultural florescence (the Hopewell culture centered on what is 
today Ohio) around 200 B.C. -A.D. 400. They were thus in a position for 
several thousand years to exploit as potential crops the most useful avail- 
able wild plants, whatever those should be. 

Nevertheless, the Hopewell florescence sprang up nearly 9,000 years 
after the rise of village living in the Fertile Crescent. Still, it was not until 
after A.D. 900 that the assembly of the Mexican crop trinity triggered a 
larger population boom, the so-called Mississippian florescence, which 
produced the largest towns and most complex societies achieved by Native 
Americans north of Mexico. But that boom came much too late to prepare 
Native Americans of the United States for the impending disaster of Euro- 
pean colonization. Food production based on eastern U.S. crops alone had 
been insufficient to trigger the boom, for reasons that are easy to specify. 
The area's available wild cereals were not nearly as useful as wheat and 
barley. Native Americans of the eastern United States domesticated no 
locally available wild pulse, no fiber crop, no fruit or nut tree. They had 
no domesticated animals at all except for dogs, which were probably 
domesticated elsewhere in the Americas. 

It's also clear that Native Americans of the eastern United States were 
not overlooking potential major crops among the wild species around 
them. Even 20th-century plant breeders, armed with all the power of mod- 
ern science, have had little success in exploiting North American wild 
plants. Yes, we have now domesticated pecans as a nut tree and blueberries 
as a fruit, and we have improved some Eurasian fruit crops (apples, plums, 
grapes, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries) by hybridizing them with 
North American wild relatives. However, those few successes have 
changed our food habits far less than Mexican corn changed food habits 
of Native Americans in the eastern United States after A.D. 900. 

The farmers most knowledgeable about eastern U.S. domesticates, the 
region's Native Americans themselves, passed judgment on them by dis- 
carding or deemphasizing them when the Mexican trinity arrived. That 
outcome also demonstrates that Native Americans were not constrained 
by cultural conservativism and were quite able to appreciate a good plant 
when they saw it. Thus, as in New Guinea, the limitations on indigenous 
food production in the eastern United States were not due to Native Amer- 


ican peoples themselves, but instead depended entirely on the American 
biota and environment. 

WE HAVE NOW considered examples of three contrasting areas, in all of 
which food production did arise indigenously. The Fertile Crescent lies at 
one extreme; New Guinea and the eastern United States lie at the opposite 
extreme. Peoples of the Fertile Crescent domesticated local plants much 
earlier. They domesticated far more species, domesticated far more pro- 
ductive or valuable species, domesticated a much wider range of types of 
crops, developed intensified food production and dense human popula- 
tions more rapidly, and as a result entered the modern world with more 
advanced technology, more complex political organization, and more epi- 
demic diseases with which to infect other peoples. 

We found that these differences between the Fertile Crescent, New 
Guinea, and the eastern United States followed straightforwardly from the 
differing suites of wild plant and animal species available for domestica- 
tion, not from limitations of the peoples themselves. When more-produc- 
tive crops arrived from elsewhere (the sweet potato in New Guinea, the 
Mexican trinity in the eastern United States), local peoples promptly took 
advantage of them, intensified food production, and increased greatly in 
population. By extension, I suggest that areas of the globe where food 
production never developed indigenously at all — California, Australia, the 
Argentine pampas, western Europe, and so on — may have offered even 
less in the way of wild plants and animals suitable for domestication than 
did New Guinea and the eastern United States, where at least a limited 
food production did arise. Indeed, Mark Blunder's worldwide survey of 
locally available large-seeded wild grasses mentioned in this chapter, and 
the worldwide survey of locally available big mammals to be presented in 
the next chapter, agree in showing that all those areas of nonexistent or 
limited indigenous food production were deficient in wild ancestors of 
domesticable livestock and cereals. 

Recall that the rise of food production involved a competition between 
food production and hunting-gathering. One might therefore wonder 
whether all these cases of slow or nonexistent rise of food production 
might instead have been due to an exceptional local richness of resources 
to be hunted and gathered, rather than to an exceptional availability of 


species suitable for domestication. In fact, most areas where indigenous 
food production arose late or not at all offered exceptionally poor rather 
than rich resources to hunter-gatherers, because most large mammals of 
Australia and the Americas (but not of Eurasia and Africa) had become 
extinct toward the end of the Ice Ages. Food production would have faced 
even less competition from hunting-gathering in these areas than it did 
in the Fertile Crescent. Hence these local failures or limitations of food 
production cannot be attributed to competition from bountiful hunting 

LEST THESE CONCLUSIONS be misinterpreted, we should end this 
chapter with caveats against exaggerating two points: peoples' readiness 
to accept better crops and livestock, and the constraints imposed by locally 
available wild plants and animals. Neither that readiness nor those con- 
straints are absolute. 

We've already discussed many examples of local peoples' adopting 
more-productive crops domesticated elsewhere. Our broad conclusion is 
that people can recognize useful plants, would therefore have probably 
recognized better local ones suitable for domestication if any had existed, 
and aren't barred from doing so by cultural conservatism or taboos. But a 
big qualifier must be added to this sentence: "in the long run and over 
large areas." Anyone knowledgeable about human societies can cite innu- 
merable examples of societies that refused crops, livestock, and other inno- 
vations that would have been productive. 

Naturally, I don't subscribe to the obvious fallacy that every society 
promptly adopts every innovation that would be useful for it. The fact is 
that, over entire continents and other large areas containing hundreds of 
competing societies, some societies will be more open to innovation, and 
some will be more resistant. The ones that do adopt new crops, livestock, 
or technology may thereby be enabled to nourish themselves better and to 
outbreed, displace, conquer, or kill off societies resisting innovation. 
That's an important phenomenon whose manifestations extend far beyond- 
the adoption of new crops, and to which we shall return in Chapter 13. 

Our other caveat concerns the limits that locally available wild species 
set on the rise of food production. I'm not saying that food production 
could never, in any amount of time, have arisen in all those areas where it 
actually had not arisen indigenously by modern times. Europeans today 


who note that Aboriginal Australians entered the modern world as Stone 
Age hunter-gatherers often assume that the Aborigines would have gone 
on that way forever. 

To appreciate the fallacy, consider a visitor from Outer Space who 
dropped in on Earth in the year 3000 B.C. The spaceling would have 
observed no food production in the eastern United States, because food 
production did not begin there until around 2500 B.C. Had the visitor of 
3000 B.C. drawn the conclusion that limitations posed by the wild plants 
and animals of the eastern United States foreclosed food production there 
forever, events of the subsequent millennium would have proved the visi- 
tor wrong. Even a visitor to the Fertile Crescent in 9500 B.C. rather than 
in 8500 B.C. could have been misled into supposing the Fertile Crescent 
permanently unsuitable for food production. 

That is, my thesis is not that California, Australia, western Europe, and 
all the other areas without indigenous food production were devoid of 
domesticable species and would have continued to be occupied just by 
hunter-gatherers indefinitely if foreign domesticates or peoples had not 
arrived. Instead, I note that regions differed greatly in their available pool 
of domesticable species, that they varied correspondingly in the date when 
local food production arose, and that food production had not yet arisen 
independently in some fertile regions as of modern times. 

Australia, supposedly the most "backward" continent, illustrates this 
point well. In southeastern Australia, the well-watered part of the conti- 
nent most suitable for food production, Aboriginal societies in recent mil- 
lennia appear to have been evolving on a trajectory that would eventually 
have led to indigenous food production. They had already built winter 
villages. They had begun to manage their environment intensively for fish 
production by building fish traps, nets, and even long canals. Had Europe- 
ans not colonized Australia in 1788 and aborted that independent trajec- 
tory, Aboriginal Australians might within a few thousand years have 
become food producers, tending ponds of domesticated fish and growing 
domesticated Australian yams and small-seeded grasses. 

In that light, we can now answer the question implicit in the title of this 
chapter. I asked whether the reason for the failure of North American 
Indians to domesticate North American apples lay with the Indians or with 
the apples. 

I'm not thereby implying that apples could never have been domesti- 
cated in North America. Recall that apples were historically among the 


most difficult fruit trees to cultivate and among the last major ones to be 
domesticated in Eurasia, because their propagation requires the difficult 
technique of grafting. There is no evidence for large-scale cultivation of 
apples even in the Fertile Crescent and in Europe until classical Greek 
times, 8,000 years after the rise of Eurasian food production began. If 
Native Americans had proceeded at the same rate in inventing or acquiring 
grafting techniques, they too would eventually have domesticated apples — 
around the year A.D. 5500, some 8,000 years after the rise of domestica- 
tion in North America around 2500 B.C. 

Thus, the reason for the failure of Native Americans to domesticate 
North American apples by the time Europeans arrived lay neither with the 
people nor with the apples. As far as biological prerequisites for apple 
domestication were concerned, North American Indian farmers were like 
Eurasian farmers, and North American wild apples were like Eurasian 
wild apples. Indeed, some of the supermarket apple varieties now being 
munched by readers of this chapter have been developed recently by cross- 
ing Eurasian apples with wild North American apples. Instead, the reason 
Native Americans did not domesticate apples lay with the entire suite of 
wild plant and animal species available to Native Americans. That suite's 
modest potential for domestication was responsible for the late start of 
food production in North America. 



mesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way. 
If you think you've already read something like that before, you're 
right. Just make a few changes, and you have the famous first sentence of 
Tolstoy's great novel Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every 
unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." By that sentence, Tolstoy 
meant that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many differ- 
ent respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, 
religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those essen- 
tial respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients 
needed for happiness. 

This principle can be extended to understanding much else about life 
besides marriage. We tend to seek easy, single-factor explanations of suc- 
cess. For most important things, though, success actually requires avoiding 
many separate possible causes of failure. The Anna Karenina principle 
explains a feature of animal domestication that had heavy consequences 
for human history — namely, that so many seemingly suitable big wild 
mammal species, such as zebras and peccaries, have never been domesti- 
cated and that the successful domesticates were almost exclusively Eur- 
asian. Having in the preceding two chapters discussed why so many wild 


plant species seemingly suitable for domestication were never domesti- 
cated, we shall now tackle the corresponding question for domestic mam- 
mals. Our former question about apples or Indians becomes a question of 
zebras or Africans. 

IN CHAPTER 4 we reminded ourselves of the many ways in which big 
domestic mammals were crucial to those human societies possessing them. 
Most notably, they provided meat, milk products, fertilizer, land trans- 
port, leather, military assault vehicles, plow traction, and wool, as well as 
germs that killed previously unexposed peoples. 

In addition, of course, small domestic mammals and domestic birds and 
insects have also been useful to humans. Many birds were domesticated 
for meat, eggs, and feathers: the chicken in China, various duck and goose 
species in parts of Eurasia, turkeys in Mesoamerica, guinea fowl in Africa, 
and the Muscovy duck in South America. Wolves were domesticated in 
Eurasia and North America to become our dogs used as hunting compan- 
ions, sentinels, pets, and, in some societies, food. Rodents and other small 
mammals domesticated for food included the rabbit in Europe, the guinea 
pig in the Andes, a giant rat in West Africa, and possibly a rodent called 
the hutia on Caribbean islands. Ferrets were domesticated in Europe to 
hunt rabbits, and cats were domesticated in North Africa and Southwest 
Asia to hunt rodent pests. Small mammals domesticated as recently as the 
19th and 20th centuries include foxes, mink, and chinchillas grown for 
fur and hamsters kept as pets. Even some insects have been domesticated, 
notably Eurasia's honeybee and China's silkworm moth, kept for honey 
and silk, respectively. 

Many of these small animals thus yielded food, clothing, or warmth. 
But none of them pulled plows or wagons, none bore riders, none except 
dogs pulled sleds or became war machines, and none of them have been as 
important for food as have big domestic mammals. Hence the rest of this 
chapter will confine itself to the big mammals. 

THE IMPORTANCE OF domesticated mammals rests on surprisingly few 
species of big terrestrial herbivores. (Only terrestrial mammals have been 
domesticated, for the obvious reason that aquatic mammals were difficult 
to maintain and breed until the development of modern Sea World facili- 


ties.) If one defines "big" as "weighing over 100 pounds," then only 14 
such species were domesticated before the twentieth century (see Table 9.1 
for a list). Of those Ancient Fourteen, 9 (the "Minor Nine" of Table 9.1) 
became important livestock for people in only limited areas of the globe: 
the Arabian camel, Bactrian camel, llama/alpaca (distinct breeds of the 
same ancestral species), donkey, reindeer, water buffalo, yak, banteng, and 
gaur. Only 5 species became widespread and important around the world. 
Those Major Five of mammal domestication are the cow, sheep, goat, pig, 
and horse. 

This list may at first seem to have glaring omissions. What about the 
African elephants with which Hannibal's armies crossed the Alps? What 
about the Asian elephants still used as work animals in Southeast Asia 
today? No, I didn't forget them, and that raises an important distinction. 
Elephants have been tamed, but never domesticated. Hannibal's elephants 
were, and Asian work elephants are, just wild elephants that were cap- 
tured and tamed; they were not bred in captivity. In contrast, a domesti- 
cated animal is defined as an animal selectively bred in captivity and 
thereby modified from its wild ancestors, for use by humans who control 
the animal's breeding and food supply. 

That is, domestication involves wild animals' being transformed into 
something more useful to humans. Truly domesticated animals differ in 
various ways from their wild ancestors. These differences result from two 
processes: human selection of those individual animals more useful to 
humans than other individuals of the same species, and automatic evolu- 
tionary responses of animals to the altered forces of natural selection 
operating in human environments as compared with wild environments. 
We already saw in Chapter 7 that all of these statements also apply to 
plant domestication. 

The ways in which domesticated animals have diverged from their wild 
ancestors include the following. Many species changed in size: cows, pigs, 
and sheep became smaller under domestication, while guinea pigs became 
larger. Sheep and alpacas were selected for retention of wool and reduc- 
tion or loss of hair, while cows have been selected for high milk yields. 
Several species of domestic animals have smaller brains and less developed 
sense organs than their wild ancestors, because they no longer need the 
bigger brains and more developed sense organs on which their ancestors 
depended to escape from wild predators. 

To appreciate the changes that developed under domestication, just 

160 • 


table 9.1 The Ancient Fourteen Species of Big Herbivorous 
Domestic Mammals 

The Major Five 

1. Sheep. Wild ancestor: the Asiatic mouflon sheep of West and Central 
Asia. Now worldwide. 

2. Goat. Wild ancestor: the bezoar goat of West Asia. Now worldwide. 

3. Cow, alias ox or cattle. Wild ancestor: the now extinct aurochs, for- 
merly distributed over Eurasia and North Africa. Now worldwide. 

4. Pig. Wild ancestor: the wild boar, distributed over Eurasia and North 
Africa. Now worldwide. Actually an omnivore (regularly eats both animal and 
plant food), whereas the other 13 of the Ancient Fourteen are more strictly 

5. Horse. Wild ancestor: now extinct wild horses of southern Russia; a 
different subspecies of the same species survived in the wild to modern times 
as Przewalski's horse of Mongolia. Now worldwide. 

The Minor Nine 

6. Arabian ( one-humped) camel. Wild ancestor: now extinct, formerly 
lived in Arabia and adjacent areas. Still largely restricted to Arabia and north- 
ern Africa, though feral in Australia. 

7. Bactrian ( two-humped) camel: Wild ancestor: now extinct, lived in 
Central Asia. Still largely confined to Central Asia. 

8. Llama and alpaca. These appear to be well -differentiated breeds of the 
same species, rather than different species. Wild ancestor: the guanaco of the 
Andes. Still largely confined to the Andes, although some are bred as pack 
animals in North America. 

9. Donkey. Wild ancestor: the African wild ass of North Africa and for- 
merly perhaps the adjacent area of Southwest Asia. Originally confined as a 
domestic animal to North Africa and western Eurasia, more recently also 
used elsewhere. 

10. Reindeer. Wild ancestor: the reindeer of northern Eurasia. Still largely 
confined as a domestic animal to that area, though now some are also used in 

1 1 . Water buffalo. Wild ancestor lives in Southeast Asia. Still used as a 
domestic animal mainly in that area, though many are also used in Brazil and 
others have escaped to the wild in Australia and other places. 


12. Yak. Wild ancestor: the wild yak of the Himalayas and Tibetan pla- 
teau. Still confined as a domestic animal to that area. 

13. Bali cattle. Wild ancestor: the banteng (a relative of the aurochs) of 
Southeast Asia. Still confined as a domestic animal to that area. 

14. Mithan. Wild ancestor: the gaur (another relative of the aurochs) of 
Indian and Burma. Still confined as a domestic animal to that area. 

compare wolves, the wild ancestors of domestic dogs, with the many 
breeds of dogs. Some dogs are much bigger than wolves (Great Danes), 
while others are much smaller (Pekingese). Some are slimmer and built for 
racing (greyhounds), while others are short-legged and useless for racing 
(dachshunds). They vary enormously in hair form and color, and some 
are even hairless. Polynesians and Aztecs developed dog breeds specifically 
raised for food. Comparing a dachshund with a wolf, you wouldn't even 
suspect that the former had been derived from the latter if you didn't 
already know it. 

THE WILD ANCESTORS of the Ancient Fourteen were spread unevenly 
over the globe. South America had only one such ancestor, which gave rise 
to the llama and alpaca. North America, Australia, and sub-Saharan 
Africa had none at all. The lack of domestic mammals indigenous to sub- 
Saharan Africa is especially astonishing, since a main reason why tourists 
visit Africa today is to see its abundant and diverse wild mammals. In 
contrast, the wild ancestors of 13 of the Ancient Fourteen (including all of 
the Major Five) were confined to Eurasia. (As elsewhere in this book, my 
use of the term "Eurasia" includes in several cases North Africa, which 
biogeographically and in many aspects of human culture is more closely 
related to Eurasia than to sub-Saharan Africa.) 

Of course, not all 13 of these wild ancestral species occurred together 
throughout Eurasia. No area had all 13, and some of the wild ancestors 
were quite local, such as the yak, confined in the wild to Tibet and adjacent 
highland areas. However, many parts of Eurasia did have quite a few of 
these 13 species living together in the same area: for example, seven of the 
wild ancestors occurred in Southwest Asia. 

This very unequal distribution of wild ancestral species among the con- 

162 • 


tinents became an important reason why Eurasians, rather than peoples of 
other continents, were the ones to end up with guns, germs, and steel. 
How can we explain the concentration of the Ancient Fourteen in Eurasia? 

One reason is simple. Eurasia has the largest number of big terrestrial 
wild mammal species, whether or not ancestral to a domesticated species. 
Let's define a "candidate for domestication" as any terrestrial herbivorous 
or omnivorous mammal species (one not predominantly a carnivore) 
weighing on the average over 100 pounds (45 kilograms). Table 9.2 shows 
that Eurasia has the most candidates, 72 species, just as it has the most 
species in many other plant and animal groups. That's because Eurasia is 
the world's largest landmass, and it's also very diverse ecologically, with 
habitats ranging from extensive tropical rain forests, through temperate 
forests, deserts, and marshes, to equally extensive tundras. Sub-Saharan 
Africa has fewer candidates, 51 species, just as it has fewer species in most 
other plant and animal groups — because it's smaller and ecologically less 
diverse than Eurasia. Africa has smaller areas of tropical rain forest than 
does Southeast Asia, and no temperate habitats at all beyond latitude 37 
degrees. As I discussed in Chapter 1, the Americas may formerly have had 
almost as many candidates as Africa, but most of America's big wild mam- 
mals (including its horses, most of its camels, and other species likely to 
have been domesticated had they survived) became extinct about 13,000 
years ago. Australia, the smallest and most isolated continent, has always 
had far fewer species of big wild mammals than has Eurasia, Africa, or the 
Americas. Just as in the Americas, in Australia all of those few candidates 

table 9.2 Mammalian Candidates for Domestication 











Domesticated species 



Percentage of candidates 






A "candidate" is defined as a species of terrestrial, herbivorous or omnivorous, wild 
mammal weighing on the average over 100 pounds. 


except the red kangaroo became extinct around the time of the continent's 
first colonization by humans. 

Thus, part of the explanation for Eurasia's having been the main site of 
big mammal domestication is that it was the continent with the most can- 
didate species of wild mammals to start out with, and lost the fewest can- 
didates to extinction in the last 40,000 years. But the numbers in Table 9.2 
warn us that that's not the whole explanation. It's also true that the per- 
centage of candidates actually domesticated is highest in Eurasia (18 per- 
cent), and is especially low in sub-Saharan Africa (no species domesticated 
out of 51 candidates!). Particularly surprising is the large number of spe- 
cies of African and American mammals that were never domesticated, 
despite their having Eurasian close relatives or counterparts that were 
domesticated. Why were Eurasia's horses domesticated, but not Africa's 
zebras? Why Eurasia's pigs, but not American peccaries or Africa's three 
species of true wild pigs? Why Eurasia's five species of wild cattle (aurochs, 
water buffalo, yak, gaur, banteng), but not the African buffalo or Ameri- 
can bison? Why the Asian mouflon sheep (ancestor of our domestic sheep), 
but not North American bighorn sheep? 

DID ALL THOSE peoples of Africa, the Americas, and Australia, despite 
their enormous diversity, nonetheless share some cultural obstacles to 
domestication not shared with Eurasian peoples? For example, did Africa's 
abundance of big wild mammals, available to kill by hunting, make it 
superfluous for Africans to go to the trouble of tending domestic stock? 

The answer to that question is unequivocal: No! The interpretation is 
refuted by five types of evidence: rapid acceptance of Eurasian domesti- 
cates by non-Eurasian peoples, the universal human penchant for keeping 
pets, the rapid domestication of the Ancient Fourteen, the repeated inde- 
pendent domestications of some of them, and the limited successes of mod- 
ern efforts at further domestications. 

First, when Eurasia's Major Five domestic mammals reached sub- 
Saharan Africa, they were adopted by the most diverse African peoples 
wherever conditions permitted. Those African herders thereby achieved a 
huge advantage over African hunter-gatherers and quickly displaced them. 
In particular, Bantu farmers who acquired cows and sheep spread out of 
their homeland in West Africa and within a short time overran the former 
hunter-gatherers in most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Even without 


acquiring crops, Khoisan peoples who acquired cows and sheep around 
2,000 years ago displaced Khoisan hunter-gatherers over much of south- 
ern Africa. The arrival of the domestic horse in West Africa transformed 
warfare there and turned the area into a set of kingdoms dependent on 
cavalry. The only factor that prevented horses from spreading beyond 
West Africa was trypanosome diseases borne by tsetse flies. 

The same pattern repeated itself elsewhere in the world, whenever peo- 
ples lacking native wild mammal species suitable for domestication finally 
had the opportunity to acquire Eurasian domestic animals. European 
horses were eagerly adopted by Native Americans in both North and 
South America, within a generation of the escape of horses from European 
settlements. For example, by the 19th century North America's Great 
Plains Indians were famous as expert horse-mounted warriors and bison 
hunters, but they did not even obtain horses until the late 17th century. 
Sheep acquired from Spaniards similarly transformed Navajo Indian soci- 
ety and led to, among other things, the weaving of the beautiful woolen 
blankets for which the Navajo have become renowned. Within a decade 
of Tasmania's settlement by Europeans with dogs, Aboriginal Tasmanians, 
who had never before seen dogs, began to breed them in large numbers for 
use in hunting. Thus, among the thousands of culturally diverse native 
peoples of Australia, the Americas, and Africa, no universal cultural taboo 
stood in the way of animal domestication. 

Surely, if some local wild mammal species of those continents had been 
domesticable, some Australian, American, and African peoples would 
have domesticated them and gained great advantage from them, just as 
they benefited from the Eurasian domestic animals that they immediately 
adopted when those became available. For instance, consider all the peo- 
ples of sub-Saharan Africa living within the range of wild zebras and buf- 
falo. Why wasn't there at least one African hunter-gatherer tribe that 
domesticated those zebras and buffalo and that thereby gained sway over 
other Africans, without having to await the arrival of Eurasian horses and 
cattle? All these facts indicate that the explanation for the lack of native 
mammal domestication outside Eurasia lay with the locally available wild 
mammals themselves, not with the local peoples. 

A SECOND TYPE of evidence for the same interpretation comes from 
pets. Keeping wild animals as pets, and taming them, constitute an initial 



stage in domestication. But pets have been reported from virtually all tra- 
ditional human societies on all continents. The variety of wild animals 
thus tamed is far greater than the variety eventually domesticated, and 
includes some species that we would scarcely have imagined as pets. 

For example, in the New Guinea villages where I work, I often see peo- 
ple with pet kangaroos, possums, and birds ranging from flycatchers to 
ospreys. Most of these captives are eventually eaten, though some are kept 
just as pets. New Guineans even regularly capture chicks of wild cassowar- 
ies (an ostrich-like large, flightless bird) and raise them to eat as a deli- 
cacy — even though captive adult cassowaries are extremely dangerous and 
now and then disembowel village people. Some Asian peoples tame eagles 
for use in hunting, although those powerful pets have also been known on 
occasion to kill their human handlers. Ancient Egyptians and Assyrians, 
and modern Indians, tamed cheetahs for use in hunting. Paintings made by 
ancient Egyptians show that they further tamed (not surprisingly) hoofed 
mammals such as gazelles and hartebeests, birds such as cranes, more sur- 
prisingly giraffes (which can be dangerous), and most astonishingly hye- 
nas. African elephants were tamed in Roman times despite the obvious 
danger, and Asian elephants are still being tamed today. Perhaps the most 
unlikely pet is the European brown bear (the same species as the American 
grizzly bear), which the Ainu people of Japan regularly captured as young 
animals, tamed, and reared to kill and eat in a ritual ceremony. 

Thus, many wild animal species reached the first stage in the sequence 
of animal-human relations leading to domestication, but only a few 
emerged at the other end of that sequence as domestic animals. Over a 
century ago, the British scientist Francis Galton summarized this discrep- 
ancy succinctly: "It would appear that every wild animal has had its 
chance of being domesticated, that [a] few . . . were domesticated long 
ago, but that the large remainder, who failed sometimes in only one small 
particular, are destined to perpetual wildness." 

DATES OF DOMESTICATION provide a third line of evidence confirm- 
ing Galton's view that early herding peoples quickly domesticated all big 
mammal species suitable for being domesticated. All species for whose 
dates of domestication we have archaeological evidence were domesticated 
between about 8000 and 2500 B.C. — that is, within the first few thousand 
years of the sedentary farming -herding societies that arose after the end 


of the last Ice Age. As summarized in Table 9.3, the era of big mammal 
domestication began with the sheep, goat, and pig and ended with camels. 
Since 2500 B.C. there have been no significant additions. 

It's true, of course, that some small mammals were first domesticated 
long after 2500 B.C. For example, rabbits were not domesticated for food 
until the Middle Ages, mice and rats for laboratory research not until the 
20th century, and hamsters for pets not until the 1930s. The continuing 
development of domesticated small mammals isn't surprising, because 
there are literally thousands of wild species as candidates, and because 
they were of too little value to traditional societies to warrant the effort of 
raising them. But big mammal domestication virtually ended 4,500 years 
ago. By then, all of the world's 148 candidate big species must have been 
tested innumerable times, with the result that only a few passed the test 
and no other suitable ones remained. 

STILL A FOURTH line of evidence that some mammal species are much 
more suitable than others is provided by the repeated independent domes- 
tications of the same species. Genetic evidence based on the portions of 
our genetic material known as mitochondrial DNA recently confirmed, as 
had long been suspected, that humped cattle of India and humpless Euro- 
pean cattle were derived from two separate populations of wild ancestral 
cattle that had diverged hundreds of thousands of years ago. That is, 
Indian peoples domesticated the local Indian subspecies of wild aurochs, 
Southwest Asians independently domesticated their own Southwest Asian 
subspecies of aurochs, and North Africans may have independently 
domesticated the North African aurochs. 

Similarly, wolves were independently domesticated to become dogs in 
the Americas and probably in several different parts of Eurasia, including 
China and Southwest Asia. Modern pigs are derived from independent 
sequences of domestication in China, western Eurasia, and possibly other 
areas as well. These examples reemphasize that the same few suitable wild 
species attracted the attention of many different human societies. 

THE FAILURES OF modern efforts provide a final type of evidence that 
past failures to domesticate the large residue of wild candidate species 
arose from shortcomings of those species, rather than from shortcomings 


table 9.3 Approximate Dates of First Attested Evidence for 
Domestication of Large Mammal Species 

Species Date (B.C.) Place 



Southwest Asia, China, 

North America 



Southwest Asia 



Southwest Asia 



China, Southwest Asia 



Southwest Asia, India, 

(?)North Africa 







Water buffalo 



Llama / alpaca 



Bactrian camel 


Central Asia 

Arabian camel 



For the other four domesticated large mammal species — reindeer, yak, gaur, and ban- 
teng — there is as yet little evidence concerning the date of domestication. Dates and places 
shown are merely the earliest ones attested to date; domestication may actually have begun 
earlier and at a different location. 

of ancient humans. Europeans today are heirs to one of the longest tradi- 
tions of animal domestication on Earth — that which began in Southwest 
Asia around 10,000 years ago. Since the fifteenth century, Europeans have 
spread around the globe and encountered wild mammal species not found 
in Europe. European settlers, such as those that I encounter in New Guinea 
with pet kangaroos and possums, have tamed or made pets of many local 
mammals, just as have indigenous peoples. European herders and farmers 
emigrating to other continents have also made serious efforts to domesti- 
cate some local species. 

In the 19th and 20th centuries at least six large mammals — the eland, 
elk, moose, musk ox, zebra, and American bison — have been the subjects 
of especially well-organized projects aimed at domestication, carried out 
by modern scientific animal breeders and geneticists. For example, eland, 
the largest African antelope, have been undergoing selection for meat qual- 
ity and milk quantity in the Askaniya-Nova Zoological Park in the 


Ukraine, as well as in England, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa; an 
experimental farm for elk (red deer, in British terminology) has been oper- 
ated by the Rowett Research Institute at Aberdeen, Scotland; and an 
experimental farm for moose has operated in the Pechero-Ilych National 
Park in Russia. Yet these modern efforts have achieved only very limited 
successes. While bison meat occasionally appears in some U.S. supermar- 
kets, and while moose have been ridden, milked, and used to pull sleds in 
Sweden and Russia, none of these efforts has yielded a result of sufficient 
economic value to attract many ranchers. It is especially striking that 
recent attempts to domesticate eland within Africa itself, where its disease 
resistance and climate tolerance would give it a big advantage over intro- 
duced Eurasian wild stock susceptible to African diseases, have not caught 

Thus, neither indigenous herders with access to candidate species over 
thousands of years, nor modern geneticists, have succeeded in making use- 
ful domesticates of large mammals beyond the Ancient Fourteen, which 
were domesticated by at least 4,500 years ago. Yet scientists today could 
undoubtedly, if they wished, fulfill for many species that part of the defini- 
tion of domestication that specifies the control of breeding and food sup- 
ply. For example, the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos are now subjecting 
the last surviving California condors to a more draconian control of breed- 
ing than that imposed upon any domesticated species. All individual con- 
dors have been genetically identified, and a computer program determines 
which male shall mate with which female in order to achieve human goals 
(in this case, to maximize genetic diversity and thereby preserve this 
endangered bird). Zoos are conducting similar breeding programs for 
many other threatened species, including gorillas and rhinos. But the zoos' 
rigorous selection of California condors shows no prospects of yielding an 
economically useful product. Nor do zoos' efforts with rhinos, although 
rhinos offer up to over three tons of meat on the hoof. As we shall now 
see, rhinos (and most other big mammals) present insuperable obstacles to 

IN ALL, OF the world's 148 big wild terrestrial herbivorous mammals — 
the candidates for domestication — only 14 passed the test. Why did the 
other 134 species fail? To which conditions was Francis Galton referring, 
when he spoke of those other species as "destined to perpetual wildness"? 


The answer follows from the Anna Karenina principle. To be domesti- 
cated, a candidate wild species must possess many different characteristics. 
Lack of any single required characteristic dooms efforts at domestication, 
just as it dooms efforts at building a happy marriage. Playing marriage 
counselor to the zebra/human couple and other ill-sorted pairs, we can 
recognize at least six groups of reasons for failed domestication. 

Diet. Every time that an animal eats a plant or another animal, the 
conversion of food biomass into the consumer's biomass involves an effi- 
ciency of much less than 100 percent: typically around 10 percent. That 
is, it takes around 10,000 pounds of corn to grow a 1,000-pound cow. If 
instead you want to grow 1,000 pounds of carnivore, you have to feed it 
10,000 pounds of herbivore grown on 100,000 pounds of corn. Even 
among herbivores and omnivores, many species, like koalas, are too fin- 
icky in their plant preferences to recommend themselves as farm animals. 

As a result of this fundamental inefficiency, no mammalian carnivore 
has ever been domesticated for food. (No, it's not because its meat would 
be tough or tasteless: we eat carnivorous wild fish all the time, and I can 
personally attest to the delicious flavor of lion burger.) The nearest thing to 
an exception is the dog, originally domesticated as a sentinel and hunting 
companion, but breeds of dogs were developed and raised for food in 
Aztec Mexico, Polynesia, and ancient China. However, regular dog eating 
has been a last resort of meat-deprived human societies: the Aztecs had no 
other domestic mammal, and the Polynesians and ancient Chinese had 
only pigs and dogs. Human societies blessed with domestic herbivorous 
mammals have not bothered to eat dogs, except as an uncommon delicacy 
(as in parts of Southeast Asia today). In addition, dogs are not strict carni- 
vores but omnivores: if you are so naive as to think that your beloved pet 
dog is really a meat eater, just read the list of ingredients on your bag of 
dog food. The dogs that the Aztecs and Polynesians reared for food were 
efficiently fattened on vegetables and garbage. 

Growth Rate. To be worth keeping, domesticates must also grow 
quickly. That eliminates gorillas and elephants, even though they are vege- 
tarians with admirably nonfinicky food preferences and represent a lot of 
meat. What would-be gorilla or elephant rancher would wait 15 years for 
his herd to reach adult size? Modern Asians who want work elephants find 
it much cheaper to capture them in the wild and tame them. 

Problems of Captive Breeding. We humans don't like to have sex under 
the watchful eyes of others; some potentially valuable animal species don't 


like to, either. That's what derailed attempts to domesticate cheetahs, the 
swiftest of all land animals, despite our strong motivation to do so for 
thousands of years. 

As I already mentioned, tame cheetahs were prized by ancient Egyptians 
and Assyrians and modern Indians as hunting animals infinitely superior 
to dogs. One Mogul emperor of India kept a stable of a thousand cheetahs. 
But despite those large investments that many wealthy princes made, all of 
their cheetahs were tamed ones caught in the wild. The princes' efforts to 
breed cheetahs in captivity failed, and not until 1960 did even biologists 
in modern zoos achieve their first successful cheetah birth. In the wild, 
several cheetah brothers chase a female for several days, and that rough 
courtship over large distances seems to be required to get the female to 
ovulate or to become sexually receptive. Cheetahs usually refuse to carry 
out that elaborate courtship ritual inside a cage. 

A similar problem has frustrated schemes to breed the vicuna, an 
Andean wild camel whose wool is prized as the finest and lightest of any 
animal's. The ancient Incas obtained vicuna wool by driving wild vicunas 
into corrals, shearing them, and then releasing them alive. Modern mer- 
chants wanting this luxury wool have had to resort either to this same 
method or simply to killing wild vicunas. Despite strong incentives of 
money and prestige, all attempts to breed vicunas for wool production in 
captivity have failed, for reasons that include vicunas' long and elaborate 
courtship ritual before mating, a ritual inhibited in captivity; male vicunas' 
fierce intolerance of each other; and their requirement for both a year- 
round feeding territory and a separate year-round sleeping territory. 

Nasty Disposition. Naturally, almost any mammal species that is suffi- 
ciently large is capable of killing a human. People have been killed by pigs, 
horses, camels, and cattle. Nevertheless, some large animals have much 
nastier dispositions and are more incurably dangerous than are others. 
Tendencies to kill humans have disqualified many otherwise seemingly 
ideal candidates for domestication. 

One obvious example is the grizzly bear. Bear meat is an expensive 
delicacy, grizzlies weigh up to 1,700 pounds, they are mainly vegetarians 
(though also formidable hunters), their vegetable diet is very broad, they 
thrive on human garbage (thereby creating big problems in Yellowstone 
and Glacier National Parks), and they grow relatively fast. If they would 
behave themselves in captivity, grizzlies would be a fabulous meat produc- 
tion animal. The Ainu people of Japan made the experiment by routinely 


rearing grizzly cubs as part of a ritual. For understandable reasons, 
though, the Ainu found it prudent to kill and eat the cubs at the age of one 
year. Keeping grizzly bears for longer would be suicidal; I am not aware 
of any adult that has been tamed. 

Another otherwise suitable candidate that disqualifies itself for equally 
obvious reasons is the African buffalo. It grows quickly up to a weight of 
a ton and lives in herds that have a well-developed dominance hierarchy, 
a trait whose virtues will be discussed below. But the African buffalo is 
considered the most dangerous and unpredictable large mammal of Africa. 
Anyone insane enough to try to domesticate it either died in the effort or 
was forced to kill the buffalo before it got too big and nasty. Similarly, 
hippos, as four-ton vegetarians, would be great barnyard animals if they 
weren't so dangerous. They kill more people each year than do any other 
African mammals, including even lions. 

Few people would be surprised at the disqualification of those notori- 
ously ferocious candidates. But there are other candidates whose dangers 
are not so well known. For instance, the eight species of wild equids 
(horses and their relatives) vary greatly in disposition, even though all 
eight are genetically so close to each other that they will interbreed and 
produce healthy (though usually sterile) offspring. Two of them, the horse 
and the North African ass (ancestor of the donkey), were successfully 
domesticated. Closely related to the North African ass is the Asiatic ass, 
also known as the onager. Since its homeland includes the Fertile Crescent, 
the cradle of Western civilization and animal domestication, ancient peo- 
ples must have experimented extensively with onagers. We know from 
Sumerian and later depictions that onagers were regularly hunted, as well 
as captured and hybridized with donkeys and horses. Some ancient depic- 
tions of horselike animals used for riding or for pulling carts may refer 
to onagers. However, all writers about them, from Romans to modern 
zookeepers, decry their irascible temper and their nasty habit of biting 
people. As a result, although similar in other respects to ancestral donkeys, 
onagers have never been domesticated. 

Africa's four species of zebras are even worse. Efforts at domestication 
went as far as hitching them to carts: they were tried out as draft animals 
in 19th-century South Africa, and the eccentric Lord Walter Rothschild 
drove through the streets of London in a carriage pulled by zebras. Alas, 
zebras become impossibly dangerous as they grow older. (That's not to 
deny that many individual horses are also nasty, but zebras and onagers 


are much more uniformly so.) Zebras have the unpleasant habit of biting 
a person and not letting go. They thereby injure even more American zoo- 
keepers each year than do tigers! Zebras are also virtually impossible to 
lasso with a rope — even for cowboys who win rodeo championships by 
lassoing horses — because of their unfailing ability to watch the rope noose 
fly toward them and then to duck their head out of the way. 

Hence it has rarely (if ever) been possible to saddle or ride a zebra, and 
South Africans' enthusiasm for their domestication waned. Unpredictably 
aggressive behavior on the part of a large and potentially dangerous mam- 
mal is also part of the reason why the initially so promising modern experi- 
ments in domesticating elk and eland have not been more successful. 

Tendency to Panic. Big mammalian herbivore species react to danger 
from predators or humans in different ways. Some species are nervous, 
fast, and programmed for instant flight when they perceive a threat. Other 
species are slower, less nervous, seek protection in herds, stand their 
ground when threatened, and don't run until necessary. Most species of 
deer and antelope (with the conspicuous exception of reindeer) are of the 
former type, while sheep and goats are of the latter. 

Naturally, the nervous species are difficult to keep in captivity. If put 
into an enclosure, they are likely to panic, and either die of shock or batter 
themselves to death against the fence in their attempts to escape. That's 
true, for example, of gazelles, which for thousands of years were the most 
frequently hunted game species in some parts of the Fertile Crescent. There 
is no mammal species that the first settled peoples of that area had more 
opportunity to domesticate than gazelles. But no gazelle species has ever 
been domesticated. Just imagine trying to herd an animal that bolts, 
blindly bashes itself against walls, can leap up to nearly 30 feet, and can 
run at a speed of 50 miles per hour! 

Social Structure. Almost all species of domesticated large mammals 
prove to be ones whose wild ancestors share three social characteristics: 
they live in herds; they maintain a well-developed dominance hierarchy 
among herd members; and the herds occupy overlapping home ranges 
rather than mutually exclusive territories. For example, herds of wild 
horses consist of one stallion, up to half a dozen mares, and their foals. 
Mare A is dominant over mares B, C, D, and E; mare B is submissive to A 
but dominant over C, D, and E; C is submissive to B and A but dominant 
over D and E; and so on. When the herd is on the move, its members 
maintain a stereotyped order: in the rear, the stallion; in the front, the top- 


ranking female, followed by her foals in order of age, with the youngest 
first; and behind her, the other mares in order of rank, each followed by 
her foals in order of age. In that way, many adults can coexist in the herd 
without constant fighting and with each knowing its rank. 

That social structure is ideal for domestication, because humans in 
effect take over the dominance hierarchy. Domestic horses of a pack line 
follow the human leader as they would normally follow the top-ranking 
female. Herds or packs of sheep, goats, cows, and ancestral dogs (wolves) 
have a similar hierarchy. As young animals grow up in such a herd, they 
imprint on the animals that they regularly see nearby. Under wild condi- 
tions those are members of their own species, but captive young herd ani- 
mals also see humans nearby and imprint on humans as well. 

Such social animals lend themselves to herding. Since they are tolerant 
of each other, they can be bunched up. Since they instinctively follow a 
dominant leader and will imprint on humans as that leader, they can 
readily be driven by a shepherd or sheepdog. Herd animals do well when 
penned in crowded conditions, because they are accustomed to living in 
densely packed groups in the wild. 

In contrast, members of most solitary territorial animal species cannot 
be herded. They do not tolerate each other, they do not imprint on 
humans, and they are not instinctively submissive. Who ever saw a line of 
cats (solitary and territorial in the wild) following a human or allowing 
themselves to be herded by a human? Every cat lover knows that cats are 
not submissive to humans in the way dogs instinctively are. Cats and fer- 
rets are the sole territorial mammal species that were domesticated, 
because our motive for doing so was not to herd them in large groups 
raised for food but to keep them as solitary hunters or pets. 

While most solitary territorial species thus haven't been domesticated, 
it's not conversely the case that most herd species can be domesticated. 
Most can't, for one of several additional reasons. 

First, herds of many species don't have overlapping home ranges but 
instead maintain exclusive territories against other herds. It's no more pos- 
sible to pen two such herds together than to pen two males of a solitary 

Second, many species that live in herds for part of the year are territorial 
in the breeding season, when they fight and do not tolerate each other's 
presence. That's true of most deer and antelope species (again with the 
exception of reindeer), and it's one of the main factors that has disqualified 


all the social antelope species for which Africa is famous from being 
domesticated. While one's first association to African antelope is "vast 
dense herds spreading across the horizon," in fact the males of those herds 
space themselves into territories and fight fiercely with each other when 
breeding. Hence those antelope cannot be maintained in crowded enclo- 
sures in captivity, as can sheep or goats or cattle. Territorial behavior simi- 
larly combines with a fierce disposition and a slow growth rate to banish 
rhinos from the farmyard. 

Finally, many herd species, including again most deer and antelope, do 
not have a well-defined dominance hierarchy and are not instinctively pre- 
pared to become imprinted on a dominant leader (hence to become misim-i 
printed on humans). As a result, though many deer and antelope species 
have been tamed (think of all those true Bambi stories), one never sees 
such tame deer and antelope driven in herds like sheep. That problem also 
derailed domestication of North American bighorn sheep, which belong to 
the same genus as Asiatic mouflon sheep, ancestor of our domestic sheep. 
Bighorn sheep are suitable to us and similar to mouflons in most respects 
except a crucial one: they lack the mouflon's stereotypical behavior 
whereby some individuals behave submissively toward other individuals 
whose dominance they acknowledge. 

LET'S now return to the problem I posed at the outset of this chapter. 
Initially, one of the most puzzling features of animal domestication is the 
seeming arbitrariness with which some species have been domesticated 
while their close relatives have not. It turns out that all but a few candi- 
dates for domestication have been eliminated by the Anna Karenina princi- 
ple. Humans and most animal species make an unhappy marriage, for one 
or more of many possible reasons: the animal's diet, growth rate, mating 
habits, disposition, tendency to panic, and several distinct features of 
social organization. Only a small percentage of wild mammal species 
ended up in happy marriages with humans, by virtue of compatibility on 
all those separate counts. 

Eurasian peoples happened to inherit many more species of domes- 
ticable large wild mammalian herbivores than did peoples of the other 
continents. That outcome, with all of its momentous advantages for Eur- 
asian societies, stemmed from three basic facts of mammalian geography, 
history, and biology. First, Eurasia, befitting its large area and ecological 


diversity, started out with the most candidates. Second, Australia and the 
Americas, but not Eurasia or Africa, lost most of their candidates in a 
massive wave of late-Pleistocene extinctions — possibly because the mam- 
mals of the former continents had the misfortune to be first exposed to 
humans suddenly and late in our evolutionary history, when our hunting 
skills were already highly developed. Finally, a higher percentage of the 
surviving candidates proved suitable for domestication on Eurasia than on 
the other continents. An examination of the candidates that were never 
domesticated, such as Africa's big herd-forming mammals, reveals particu- 
lar reasons that disqualified each of them. Thus, Tolstoy would have 
approved of the insight offered in another context by an earlier author, 
Saint Matthew: "Many are called, but few are chosen." 



compare the shapes and orientations of the continents. You'll be 
struck by an obvious difference. The Americas span a much greater dis- 
tance north-south (9,000 miles) than east-west: only 3,000 miles at the 
widest, narrowing to a mere 40 miles at the Isthmus of Panama. That is, 
the major axis of the Americas is north-south. The same is also true, 
though to a less extreme degree, for Africa. In contrast, the major axis of 
Eurasia is east-west. What effect, if any, did those differences in the orien- 
tation of the continents' axes have on human history? 

This chapter will be about what I see as their enormous, sometimes 
tragic, consequences. Axis orientations affected the rate of spread of crops 
and livestock, and possibly also of writing, wheels, and other inventions. 
That basic feature of geography thereby contributed heavily to the very 
different experiences of Native Americans, Africans, and Eurasians in the 
last 500 years. 

FOOD PRODUCTION'S SPREAD proves as crucial to understanding 
geographic differences in the rise of guns, germs, and steel as did its ori- 
gins, which we considered in the preceding chapters. That's because, as we 


Figure 10.1. Major axes of the continents. 

saw in Chapter 5, there were no more than nine areas of the globe, perhaps 
as few as five, where food production arose independently. Yet, already in 
prehistoric times, food production became established in many other 
regions besides those few areas of origins. All those other areas became 
food producing as a result of the spread of crops, livestock, and knowledge 
of how to grow them and, in some cases, as a result of migrations of farm- 
ers and herders themselves. 

The main such spreads of food production were from Southwest Asia 
to Europe, Egypt and North Africa, Ethiopia, Central Asia, and the Indus 
Valley; from the Sahel and West Africa to East and South Africa; from 
China to tropical Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, and 
Japan; and from Mesoamerica to North America. Moreover, food produc- 
tion even in its areas of origin became enriched by the addition of crops, 
livestock, and techniques from other areas of origin. 

Just as some regions proved much more suitable than others for the 
origins of food production, the ease of its spread also varied greatly 
around the world. Some areas that are ecologically very suitable for food 
production never acquired it in prehistoric times at all, even though areas 
of prehistoric food production existed nearby. The most conspicuous such 
examples are the failure of both farming and herding to reach Native 

1 7 8 


American California from the U.S. Southwest or to reach Australia from 
New Guinea and Indonesia, and the failure of farming to spread from 
South Africa's Natal Province to South Africa's Cape. Even among all 
those areas where food production did spread in the prehistoric era, the 
rates and dates of spread varied considerably. At the one extreme was its 
rapid spread along east-west axes: from Southwest Asia both west to 
Europe and Egypt and east to the Indus Valley (at an average rate of about 
0.7 miles per year); and from the Philippines east to Polynesia (at 3.2 miles 
per year). At the opposite extreme was its slow spread along north-south 
axes: at less than 0.5 miles per year, from Mexico northward to the U.S. 
Southwest; at less than 0.3 miles per year, for corn and beans from Mexico 
northward to become productive in the eastern United States around A.D. 
900; and at 0.2 miles per year, for the llama from Peru north to Ecuador. 
These differences could be even greater if corn was not domesticated in 
Mexico as late as 3500 B.C., as I assumed conservatively for these calcula- 
tions, and as some archaeologists now assume, but if it was instead domes- 
ticated considerably earlier, as most archaeologists used to assume (and 
many still do). 

There were also great differences in the completeness with which suites 
of crops and livestock spread, again implying stronger or weaker barriers 
to their spreading. For instance, while most of Southwest Asia's founder 
crops and livestock did spread west to Europe and east to the Indus Valley, 
neither of the Andes' domestic mammals (the llama / alpaca and the guinea 
pig) ever reached Mesoamerica in pre-Columbian times. That astonishing 
failure cries out for explanation. After all, Mesoamerica did develop dense 
farming populations and complex societies, so there can be no doubt that 
Andean domestic animals (if they had been available) would have been 
valuable for food, transport, and wool. Except for dogs, Mesoamerica was 
utterly without indigenous mammals to fill those needs. Some South Amer- 
ican crops nevertheless did succeed in reaching Mesoamerica, such as man- 
ioc, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. What selective barrier let those crops 
through but screened out llamas and guinea pigs? 

A subtler expression of this geographically varying ease of spread is the 
phenomenon termed preemptive domestication. Most of the wild plant 
species from which our crops were derived vary genetically from area to 
area, because alternative mutations had become established among the 
wild ancestral populations of different areas. Similarly, the changes 
required to transform wild plants into crops can in principle be brought 


about by alternative new mutations or alternative courses of selection to 
yield equivalent results. In this light, one can examine a crop widespread 
in prehistoric times and ask whether all of its varieties show the same wild 
mutation or same transforming mutation. The purpose of this examina- 
tion is to try to figure out whether the crop was developed in just one area 
or else independently in several areas. 

If one carries out such a genetic analysis for major ancient New World 
crops, many of them prove to include two or more of those alternative 
wild variants, or two or more of those alternative transforming mutations. 
This suggests that the crop was domesticated independently in at least two 
different areas, and that some varieties of the crop inherited the particular 
mutation of one area while other varieties of the same crop inherited the 
mutation of another area. On this basis, botanists conclude that lima 
beans (Phaseolus lunatus), common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), and chili 
peppers of the Capsicum annuutn I chinense group were all domesticated 
on at least two separate occasions, once in Mesoamerica and once in South 
America; and that the squash Cucurbita pepo and the seed plant goosefoot 
were also domesticated independently at least twice, once in Mesoamerica 
and once in the eastern United States. In contrast, most ancient Southwest 
Asian crops exhibit just one of the alternative wild variants or alternative 
transforming mutations, suggesting that all modern varieties of that partic- 
ular crop stem from only a single domestication. 

What does it imply if the same crop has been repeatedly and indepen- 
dently domesticated in several different parts of its wild range, and not 
just once and in a single area? We have already seen that plant domestica- 
tion involves the modification of wild plants so that they become more 
useful to humans by virtue of larger seeds, a less bitter taste, or other 
qualities. Hence if a productive crop is already available, incipient farmers 
will surely proceed to grow it rather than start all over again by gathering 
its not yet so useful wild relative and redomesticating it. Evidence for just 
a single domestication thus suggests that, once a wild plant had been 
domesticated, the crop spread quickly to other areas throughout the wild 
plant's range, preempting the need for other independent domestications 
of the same plant. However, when we find evidence that the same wild 
ancestor was domesticated independently in different areas, we infer that 
the crop spread too slowly to preempt its domestication elsewhere. The 
evidence for predominantly single domestications in Southwest Asia, but 
frequent multiple domestications in the Americas, might thus provide 


more subtle evidence that crops spread more easily out of Southwest Asia 
than in the Americas. 

Rapid spread of a crop may preempt domestication not only of the same 
wild ancestral species somewhere else but also of related wild species. If 
you're already growing good peas, it's of course pointless to start from 
scratch to domesticate the same wild ancestral pea again, but it's also 
pointless to domesticate closely related wild pea species that for farmers 
are virtually equivalent to the already domesticated pea species. All of 
Southwest Asia's founder crops preempted domestication of any of their 
close relatives throughout the whole expanse of western Eurasia. In con- 
trast, the New World presents many cases of equivalent and closely re- 
lated, but nevertheless distinct, species having been domesticated in Meso- 
america and South America. For instance, 95 percent of the cotton grown 
in the world today belongs to the cotton species Gossypium hirsutum, 
which was domesticated in prehistoric times in Mesoamerica. However, 
prehistoric South American farmers instead grew the related cotton Gos- 
sypium barbadense. Evidently, Mesoamerican cotton had such difficulty 
reaching South America that it failed in the prehistoric era to preempt the 
domestication of a different cotton species there (and vice versa). Chili 
peppers, squashes, amaranths, and chenopods are other crops of which 
different but related species were domesticated in Mesoamerica and South 
America, since no species was able to spread fast enough to preempt the 

We thus have many different phenomena converging on the same con- 
clusion: that food production spread more readily out of Southwest Asia 
than in the Americas, and possibly also than in sub-Saharan Africa. Those 
phenomena include food production's complete failure to reach some eco- 
logically suitable areas; the differences in its rate and selectivity of spread; 
and the differences in whether the earliest domesticated crops preempted 
redomestications of the same species or domestications of close relatives. 
What was it about the Americas and Africa that made the spread of food 
production more difficult there than in Eurasia? 

To ANSWER THIS question, let's begin by examining the rapid spread 
of food production out of Southwest Asia (the Fertile Crescent). Soon after 
food production arose there, somewhat before 8000 B.C., a centrifugal 
wave of it appeared in other parts of western Eurasia and North Africa 


farther and farther removed from the Fertile Crescent, to the west and 
east. On this page I have redrawn the striking map (Figure 10.2) assembled 
by the geneticist Daniel Zohary and botanist Maria Hopf, in which they 
illustrate how the wave had reached Greece and Cyprus and the Indian 
subcontinent by 6500 B.C., Egypt soon after 6000 B.C., central Europe by 
5400 B.C., southern Spain by 5200 B.C., and Britain around 3500 B.C. In 
each of those areas, food production was initiated by some of the same 
suite of domestic plants and animals that launched it in the Fertile Cres- 
cent. In addition, the Fertile Crescent package penetrated Africa south- 
ward to Ethiopia at some still-uncertain date. However, Ethiopia also 
developed many indigenous crops, and we do not yet know whether it was 
these crops or the arriving Fertile Crescent crops that launched Ethiopian 
food production. 

The spread of Fertile Crescent crops across western Eurasia 

Figure 10.2. The symbols show early radiocarbon-dated sites where 
remains of Fertile Crescent crops have been found. • = the Fertile Cres- 
cent itself (sites before 7000 B.C.). Note that dates become progressively 
later as one gets farther from the Fertile Crescent. This map is based on 
Map 20 of Zohary and Hopfs Domestication of Plants in the Old World 
but substitutes calibrated radiocarbon dates for their uncalibrated dates. 


Of course, not all pieces of the package spread to all those outlying 
areas: for example, Egypt was too warm for einkorn wheat to become 
established. In some outlying areas, elements of the package arrived at 
different times: for instance, sheep preceded cereals in southwestern 
Europe. Some outlying areas went on to domesticate a few local crops of 
their own, such as poppies in western Europe and watermelons possibly 
in Egypt. But most food production in outlying areas depended initially 
on Fertile Crescent domesticates. Their spread was soon followed by that 
of other innovations originating in or near the Fertile Crescent, including 
the wheel, writing, metalworking techniques, milking, fruit trees, and beer 
and wine production. 

Why did the same plant package launch food production throughout 
western Eurasia? Was it because the same set of plants occurred in the wild 
in many areas, were found useful there just as in the Fertile Crescent, and 
were independently domesticated? No, that's not the reason. First, many 
of the Fertile Crescent's founder crops don't even occur in the wild outside 
Southwest Asia. For instance, none of the eight main founder crops except 
barley grows wild in Egypt. Egypt's Nile Valley provides an environment 
similar to the Fertile Crescent's Tigris and Euphrates Valleys. Hence the 
package that worked well in the latter valleys also worked well enough 
in the Nile Valley to trigger the spectacular rise of indigenous Egyptian 
civilization. But the foods to fuel that spectacular rise were originally 
absent in Egypt. The sphinx and pyramids were built by people fed on 
crops originally native to the Fertile Crescent, not to Egypt. 

Second, even for those crops whose wild ancestor does occur outside of 
Southwest Asia, we can be confident that the crops of Europe and India 
were mostly obtained from Southwest Asia and were not local domesti- 
cates. For example, wild flax occurs west to Britain and Algeria and east 
to the Caspian Sea, while wild barley occurs east even to Tibet. However, 
for most of the Fertile Crescent's founding crops, all cultivated varieties in 
the world today share only one arrangement of chromosomes out of the 
multiple arrangements found in the wild ancestor; or else they share only 
a single mutation (out of many possible mutations) by which the cultivated 
varieties differ from the wild ancestor in characteristics desirable to 
humans. For instance, all cultivated peas share the same recessive gene that 
prevents ripe pods of cultivated peas from spontaneously popping open 
and spilling their peas, as wild pea pods do. 

Evidently, most of the Fertile Crescent's founder crops were never 


domesticated again elsewhere after their initial domestication in the Fertile 
Crescent. Had they been repeatedly domesticated independently, they 
would exhibit legacies of those multiple origins in the form of varied chro- 
mosomal arrangements or varied mutations. Hence these are typical exam- 
ples of the phenomenon of preemptive domestication that we discussed 
above. The quick spread of the Fertile Crescent package preempted any 
possible other attempts, within the Fertile Crescent or elsewhere, to 
domesticate the same wild ancestors. Once the crop had become available, 
there was no further need to gather it from the wild and thereby set it on 
the path to domestication again. 

The ancestors of most of the founder crops have wild relatives, in the 
Fertile Crescent and elsewhere, that would also have been suitable for 
domestication. For example, peas belong to the genus Pisum, which con- 
sists of two wild species: Pisum sativum, the one that became domesticated 
to yield our garden peas, and Pisum fulvum, which was never domesti- 
cated. Yet wild peas of Pisum fulvum taste good, either fresh or dried, and 
are common in the wild. Similarly, wheats, barley, lentil, chickpea, beans, 
and flax all have numerous wild relatives besides the ones that became 
domesticated. Some of those related beans and barleys were indeed domes- 
ticated independently in the Americas or China, far from the early site of 
domestication in the Fertile Crescent. But in western Eurasia only one of 
several potentially useful wild species was domesticated — probably 
because that one spread so quickly that people soon stopped gathering the 
other wild relatives and ate only the crop. Again as we discussed above, 
the crop's rapid spread preempted any possible further attempts to domes- 
ticate its relatives, as well as to redomesticate its ancestor. 

WHY WAS THE spread of crops from the Fertile Crescent so rapid? The 
answer depends partly on that east-west axis of Eurasia with which I 
opened this chapter. Localities distributed east and west of each other at 
the same latitude share exactly the same day length and its seasonal varia- 
tions. To a lesser degree, they also tend to share similar diseases, regimes 
of temperature and rainfall, and habitats or biomes (types of vegetation). 
For example, Portugal, northern Iran, and Japan, all located at about the 
same latitude but lying successively 4,000 miles east or west of each other, 
are more similar to each other in climate than each is to a location lying 
even a mere 1,000 miles due south. On all the continents the habitat type 


known as tropical rain forest is confined to within about 10 degrees lati- 
tude of the equator, while Mediterranean scrub habitats (such as Califor- 
nia's chaparral and Europe's maquis) lie between about 30 and 40 degrees 
of latitude. 

But the germination, growth, and disease resistance of plants are 
adapted to precisely those features of climate. Seasonal changes of day 
length, temperature, and rainfall constitute signals that stimulate seeds to 
germinate, seedlings to grow, and mature plants to develop flowers, seeds, 
and fruit. Each plant population becomes genetically programmed, 
through natural selection, to respond appropriately to signals of the sea- 
sonal regime under which it has evolved. Those regimes vary greatly with 
latitude. For example, day length is constant throughout the year at the 
equator, but at temperate latitudes it increases as the months advance from 
the winter solstice to the summer solstice, and it then declines again 
through the next half of the year. The growing season — that is, the months 
with temperatures and day lengths suitable for plant growth — is shortest 
at high latitudes and longest toward the equator. Plants are also adapted 
to the diseases prevalent at their latitude. 

Woe betide the plant whose genetic program is mismatched to the lati- 
tude of the field in which it is planted! Imagine a Canadian farmer foolish 
enough to plant a race of corn adapted to growing farther south, in Mex- 
ico. The unfortunate corn plant, following its Mexico-adapted genetic pro- 
gram, would prepare to thrust up its shoots in March, only to find itself 
still buried under 10 feet of snow. Should the plant become genetically 
reprogrammed so as to germinate at a time more appropriate to Canada — 
say, late June — the plant would still be in trouble for other reasons. Its 
genes would be telling it to grow at a leisurely rate, sufficient only to bring 
it to maturity in five months. That's a perfectly safe strategy in Mexico's 
mild climate, but in Canada a disastrous one that would guarantee the 
plant's being killed by autumn frosts before it had produced any mature 
corn cobs. The plant would also lack genes for resistance to diseases of 
northern climates, while uselessly carrying genes for resistance to diseases 
of southern climates. All those features make low-latitude plants poorly 
adapted to high-latitude conditions, and vice versa. As a consequence, 
most Fertile Crescent crops grow well in France and Japan but poorly at 
the equator. 

Animals too are adapted to latitude-related features of climate. In that 
respect we are typical animals, as we know by introspection. Some of us 


can't stand cold northern winters with their short days and characteristic 
germs, while others of us can't stand hot tropical climates with their own 
characteristic diseases. In recent centuries overseas colonists from cool 
northern Europe have preferred to emigrate to the similarly cool climates 
of North America, Australia, and South Africa, and to settle in the cool 
highlands within equatorial Kenya and New Guinea. Northern Europeans 
who were sent out to hot tropical lowland areas used to die in droves of 
diseases such as malaria, to which tropical peoples had evolved some 
genetic resistance. 

That's part of the reason why Fertile Crescent domesticates spread west 
and east so rapidly: they were already well adapted to the climates of the 
regions to which they were spreading. For instance, once farming crossed 
from the plains of Hungary into central Europe around 5400 B.C., it 
spread so quickly that the sites of the first farmers in the vast area from 
Poland west to Holland (marked by their characteristic pottery with linear 
decorations) were nearly contemporaneous. By the time of Christ, cereals 
of Fertile Crescent origin were growing over the 8,000-mile expanse from 
the Atlantic coast of Ireland to the Pacific coast of Japan. That west-east 
expanse of Eurasia is the largest land distance on Earth. 

Thus, Eurasia's west-east axis allowed Fertile Crescent crops quickly to 
launch agriculture over the band of temperate latitudes from Ireland to the 
Indus Valley, and to enrich the agriculture that arose independently in east- 
ern Asia. Conversely, Eurasian crops that were first domesticated far from 
the Fertile Crescent but at the same latitudes were able to diffuse back to 
the Fertile Crescent. Today, when seeds are transported over the whole 
globe by ship and plane, we take it for granted that our meals are a geo- 
graphic mishmash. A typical American fast-food restaurant meal would 
include chicken (first domesticated in China) and potatoes (from the 
Andes) or corn (from Mexico), seasoned with black pepper (from India) 
and washed down with a cup of coffee (of Ethiopian origin). Already, 
though, by 2,000 years ago, Romans were also nourishing themselves with 
their own hodgepodge of foods that mostly originated elsewhere. Of 
Roman crops, only oats and poppies were native to Italy. Roman staples 
were the Fertile Crescent founder package, supplemented by quince (origi- 
nating in the Caucasus); millet and cumin (domesticated in Central Asia); 
cucumber, sesame, and citrus fruit (from India); and chicken, rice, apri- 
cots, peaches, and foxtail millet (originally from China). Even though 
Rome's apples were at least native to western Eurasia, they were grown 


by means of grafting techniques that had developed in China and spread 
westward from there. 

While Eurasia provides the world's widest band of land at the same 
latitude, and hence the most dramatic example of rapid spread of domesti- 
cates, there are other examples as well. Rivaling in speed the spread of the 
Fertile Crescent package was the eastward spread of a subtropical package 
that was initially assembled in South China and that received additions 
on reaching tropical Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and New 
Guinea. Within 1,600 years that resulting package of crops (including 
bananas, taro, and yams) and domestic animals (chickens, pigs, and dogs) 
had spread more than 5,000 miles eastward into the tropical Pacific to 
reach the islands of Polynesia. A further likely example is the east-west 
spread of crops within Africa's wide Sahel zone, but paleobotanists have 
yet to work out the details. 

CONTRAST THE EASE of east-west diffusion in Eurasia with the diffi- 
culties of diffusion along Africa's north-south axis. Most of the Fertile 
Crescent founder crops reached Egypt very quickly and then spread as far 
south as the cool highlands of Ethiopia, beyond which they didn't spread. 
South Africa's Mediterranean climate would have been ideal for them, but 
the 2,000 miles of tropical conditions between Ethiopia and South Africa 
posed an insuperable barrier. Instead, African agriculture south of the 
Sahara was launched by the domestication of wild plants (such as sorghum 
and African yams) indigenous to the Sahel zone and to tropical West 
Africa, and adapted to the warm temperatures, summer rains, and rela- 
tively constant day lengths of those low latitudes. 

Similarly, the spread southward of Fertile Crescent domestic animals 
through Africa was stopped or slowed by climate and disease, especially 
by trypanosome diseases carried by tsetse flies. The horse never became 
established farther south than West Africa's kingdoms north of the equa- 
tor. The advance of cattle, sheep, and goats halted for 2,000 years at the 
northern edge of the Serengeti Plains, while new types of human econo- 
mies and livestock breeds were being developed. Not until the period A.D. 
1-200, some 8,000 years after livestock were domesticated in the Fertile 
Crescent, did cattle, sheep, and goats finally reach South Africa. Tropical 
African crops had their own difficulties spreading south in Africa, arriving 
in South Africa with black African farmers (the Bantu) just after those 


Fertile Crescent livestock did. However, those tropical African crops could 
never be transmitted across South Africa's Fish River, beyond which they 
were stopped by Mediterranean conditions to which they were not 

The result was the all-too-familiar course of the last two millennia of 
South African history. Some of South Africa's indigenous Khoisan peoples 
(otherwise known as Hottentots and Bushmen) acquired livestock but 
remained without agriculture. They became outnumbered and were 
replaced northeast of the Fish River by black African farmers, whose 
southward spread halted at that river. Only when European settlers 
arrived by sea in 1652, bringing with them their Fertile Crescent crop 
package, could agriculture thrive in South Africa's Mediterranean zone. 
The collisions of all those peoples produced the tragedies of modern South 
Africa: the quick decimation of the Khoisan by European germs and guns; 
a century of wars between Europeans and blacks; another century of racial 
oppression; and now, efforts by Europeans and blacks to seek a new mode 
of coexistence in the former Khoisan lands. 

CONTRAST ALSO THE ease of diffusion in Eurasia with its difficulties 
along the Americas' north-south axis. The distance between Mesoamerica 
and South America — say, between Mexico's highlands and Ecuador's — is 
only 1,200 miles, approximately the same as the distance in Eurasia sepa- 
rating the Balkans from Mesopotamia. The Balkans provided ideal grow- 
ing conditions for most Mesopotamian crops and livestock, and received 
those domesticates as a package within 2,000 years of its assembly in the 
Fertile Crescent. That rapid spread preempted opportunities for domesti- 
cating those and related species in the Balkans. Highland Mexico and the 
Andes would similarly have been suitable for many of each other's crops 
and domestic animals. A few crops, notably Mexican corn, did indeed 
spread to the other region in the pre-Columbian era. 

But other crops and domestic animals failed to spread between Meso- 
america and South America. The cool highlands of Mexico would have 
provided ideal conditions for raising llamas, guinea pigs, and potatoes, all 
domesticated in the cool highlands of the South American Andes. Yet the 
northward spread of those Andean specialties was stopped completely by 
the hot intervening lowlands of Central America. Five thousand years after 
llamas had been domesticated in the Andes, the Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs, 


and all other native societies of Mexico remained without pack animals 
and without any edible domestic mammals except for dogs. 

Conversely, domestic turkeys of Mexico and domestic sunflowers of the 
eastern United States might have thrived in the Andes, but their southward 
spread was stopped by the intervening tropical climates. The mere 700 
miles of north-south distance prevented Mexican corn, squash, and beans 
from reaching the U.S. Southwest for several thousand years after their 
domestication in Mexico, and Mexican chili peppers and chenopods never 
did reach it in prehistoric times. For thousands of years after corn was 
domesticated in Mexico, it failed to spread northward into eastern North 
America, because of the cooler climates and shorter growing season pre- 
vailing there. At some time between A.D. 1 and A.D. 200, corn finally 
appeared in the eastern United States but only as a very minor crop. Not 
until around A.D. 900, after hardy varieties of corn adapted to northern 
climates had been developed, could corn-based agriculture contribute to 
the flowering of the most complex Native American society of North 
America, the Mississippian culture — a brief flowering ended by European- 
introduced germs arriving with and after Columbus. 

Recall that most Fertile Crescent crops prove, upon genetic study, to 
derive from only a single domestication process, whose resulting crop 
spread so quickly that it preempted any other incipient domestications of 
the same or related species. In contrast, many apparently widespread 
Native American crops prove to consist of related species or even of geneti- 
cally distinct varieties of the same species, independently domesticated in 
Mesoamerica, South America, and the eastern United States. Closely 
related species replace each other geographically among the amaranths, 
beans, chenopods, chili peppers, cottons, squashes, and tobaccos. Differ- 
ent varieties of the same species replace each other among the kidney 
beans, lima beans, the chili pepper Capsicum annuum I chinense, and the 
squash Cucurbita pepo. Those legacies of multiple independent domestica- 
tions may provide further testimony to the slow diffusion of crops along 
the Americas' north-south axis. 

Africa and the Americas are thus the two largest landmasses with a 
predominantly north-south axis and resulting slow diffusion. In certain 
other parts of the world, slow north-south diffusion was important on a 
smaller scale. These other examples include the snail's pace of crop 
exchange between Pakistan's Indus Valley and South India, the slow 
spread of South Chinese food production into Peninsular Malaysia, and 


the failure of tropical Indonesian and New Guinean food production to 
arrive in prehistoric times in the modern farmlands of southwestern and 
southeastern Australia, respectively. Those two corners of Australia are 
now the continent's breadbaskets, but they lie more than 2,000 miles south 
of the equator. Farming there had to await the arrival from faraway 
Europe, on European ships, of crops adapted to Europe's cool climate and 
short growing season. 

1 HAVE BEEN dwelling on latitude, readily assessed by a glance at a map, 
because it is a major determinant of climate, growing conditions, and ease 
of spread of food production. However, latitude is of course not the only 
such determinant, and it is not always true that adjacent places at the same 
latitude have the same climate (though they do necessarily have the same 
day length). Topographic and ecological barriers, much more pronounced 
on some continents than on others, were locally important obstacles to 

For instance, crop diffusion between the U.S. Southeast and Southwest 
was very slow and selective although these two regions are at the same 
latitude. That's because much of the intervening area of Texas and the 
southern Great Plains was dry and unsuitable for agriculture. A corres- 
ponding example within Eurasia involved the eastern limit of Fertile Cres- 
cent crops, which spread rapidly westward to the Atlantic Ocean and 
eastward to the Indus Valley without encountering a major barrier. How- 
ever, farther eastward in India the shift from predominantly winter rainfall 
to predominantly summer rainfall contributed to a much more delayed 
extension of agriculture, involving different crops and farming techniques, 
into the Ganges plain of northeastern India. Still farther east, temperate 
areas of China were isolated from western Eurasian areas with similar 
climates by the combination of the Central Asian desert, Tibetan plateau, 
and Himalayas. The initial development of food production in China was 
therefore independent of that at the same latitude in the Fertile Crescent, 
and gave rise to entirely different crops. However, even those barriers 
between China and western Eurasia were at least partly overcome during 
the second millennium B.C., when West Asian wheat, barley, and horses 
reached China. 

By the same token, the potency of a 2,000-mile north-south shift as a 
barrier also varies with local conditions. Fertile Crescent food production 


spread southward over that distance to Ethiopia, and Bantu food produc- 
tion spread quickly from Africa's Great Lakes region south to Natal, 
because in both cases the intervening areas had similar rainfall regimes 
and were suitable for agriculture. In contrast, crop diffusion from Indone- 
sia south to southwestern Australia was completely impossible, and diffu- 
sion over the much shorter distance from Mexico to the U.S. Southwest 
and Southeast was slow, because the intervening areas were deserts hostile 
to agriculture. The lack of a high-elevation plateau in Mesoamerica south 
of Guatemala, and Mesoamerica's extreme narrowness south of Mexico 
and especially in Panama, were at least as important as the latitudinal 
gradient in throttling crop and livestock exchanges between the highlands 
of Mexico and the Andes. 

Continental differences in axis orientation affected the diffusion not 
only of food production but also of other technologies and inventions. For 
example, around 3,000 B.C. the invention of the wheel in or near South- 
west Asia spread rapidly west and east across much of Eurasia within a 
few centuries, whereas the wheels invented independently in prehistoric 
Mexico never spread south to the Andes. Similarly, the principle of alpha- 
betic writing, developed in the western part of the Fertile Crescent by 1500 
B.C., spread west to Carthage and east to the Indian subcontinent within 
about a thousand years, but the Mesoamerican writing systems that flour- 
ished in prehistoric times for at least 2,000 years never reached the Andes. 

Naturally, wheels and writing aren't directly linked to latitude and day 
length in the way crops are. Instead, the links are indirect, especially via 
food production systems and their consequences. The earliest wheels were 
parts of ox-drawn carts used to transport agricultural produce. Early writ- 
ing was restricted to elites supported by food-producing peasants, and it 
served purposes of economically and socially complex food-producing 
societies (such as royal propaganda, goods inventories, and bureaucratic 
record keeping). In general, societies that engaged in intense exchanges of 
crops, livestock, and technologies related to food production were more 
likely to become involved in other exchanges as well. 

America's patriotic song "America the Beautiful" invokes our spacious 
skies, our amber waves of grain, from sea to shining sea. Actually, that 
song reverses geographic realities. As in Africa, in the Americas the spread 
of native crops and domestic animals was slowed by constricted skies and 
environmental barriers. No waves of native grain ever stretched from the 
Atlantic to the Pacific coast of North America, from Canada to Patagonia, 


or from Egypt to South Africa, while amber waves of wheat and barley 
came to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the spacious skies of 
Eurasia. That faster spread of Eurasian agriculture, compared with that of 
Native American and sub-Saharan African agriculture, played a role (as 
the next part of this book will show) in the more rapid diffusion of Eur- 
asian writing, metallurgy, technology, and empires. 

To bring up all those differences isn't to claim that widely distributed 
crops are admirable, or that they testify to the superior ingenuity of early 
Eurasian farmers. They reflect, instead, the orientation of Eurasia's axis 
compared with that of the Americas or Africa. Around those axes turned 
the fortunes of history. 




in a few centers, and how it spread at unequal rates from there 
to other areas. Those geographic differences constitute important ultimate 
answers to Yali's question about why different peoples ended up with dis- 
parate degrees of power and affluence. However, food production itself is 
not a proximate cause. In a one-on-one fight, a naked farmer would have 
no advantage over a naked hunter-gatherer. 

Instead, one part of the explanation for farmer power lies in the much 
denser populations that food production could support: ten naked farmers 
certainly would have an advantage over one naked hunter-gatherer in a 
fight. The other part is that neither farmers nor hunter-gatherers are 
naked, at least not figuratively. Farmers tend to breathe out nastier germs, 
to own better weapons and armor, to own more-powerful technology in 
general, and to live under centralized governments with literate elites bet- 
ter able to wage wars of conquest. Hence the next four chapters will 
explore how the ultimate cause of food production led to the proximate 
causes of germs, literacy, technology, and centralized government. 

The links connecting livestock and crops to germs were unforgettably 
illustrated for me by a hospital case about which I learned through a physi- 
cian friend. When my friend was an inexperienced young doctor, he was 


called into a hospital room to deal with a married couple stressed-out by a 
mysterious illness. It did not help that the couple was also having difficulty 
communicating with each other, and with my friend. The husband was a 
small, timid man, sick with pneumonia caused by an unidentified microbe, 
and with only limited command of the English language. Acting as transla- 
tor was his beautiful wife, worried about her husband's condition and 
frightened by the unfamiliar hospital environment. My friend was also 
stressed-out from a long week of hospital work, and from trying to figure 
out what unusual risk factors might have brought on the strange illness. 
The stress caused my friend to forget everything he had been taught about 
patient confidentiality: he committed the awful blunder of requesting the 
woman to ask her husband whether he'd had any sexual experiences that 
could have caused the infection. 

As the doctor watched, the husband turned red, pulled himself together 
so that he seemed even smaller, tried to disappear under his bedsheets, and 
stammered out words in a barely audible voice. His wife suddenly 
screamed in rage and drew herself up to tower over him. Before the doctor 
could stop her, she grabbed a heavy metal bottle, slammed it with full 
force onto her husband's head, and stormed out of the room. It took a 
while for the doctor to revive her husband and even longer to elicit, 
through the man's broken English, what he'd said that so enraged his wife. 
The answer slowly emerged: he had confessed to repeated intercourse with 
sheep on a recent visit to the family farm; perhaps that was how he had 
contracted the mysterious microbe. 

This incident sounds bizarrely one-of-a-kind and of no possible broader 
significance. In fact, it illustrates an enormous subject of great importance: 
human diseases of animal origins. Very few of us love sheep in the carnal 
sense that this patient did. But most of us platonically love our pet animals, 
such as our dogs and cats. As a society, we certainly appear to have an 
inordinate fondness for sheep and other livestock, to judge from the vast 
numbers of them that we keep. For example, at the time of a recent census, 
Australia's 17,085,400 people thought so highly of sheep that they kept 
161,600,000 of them. 

Some of us adults, and even more of our children, pick up infectious 
diseases from our pets. Usually they remain no more than a nuisance, but 
a few have evolved into something far more serious. The major killers 
of humanity throughout our recent history — smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, 
malaria, plague, measles, and cholera — are infectious diseases that evolved 


from diseases of animals, even though most of the microbes responsible 
for our own epidemic illnesses are paradoxically now almost confined to 
humans. Because diseases have been the biggest killers of people, they have 
also been decisive shapers of history. Until World War II, more victims of 
war died of war-borne microbes than of battle wounds. All those military 
histories glorifying great generals oversimplify the ego-deflating truth: the 
winners of past wars were not always the armies with the best generals 
and weapons, but were often merely those bearing the nastiest germs to 
transmit to their enemies. 

The grimmest examples of germs' role in history come from the Euro- 
pean conquest of the Americas that began with Columbus's voyage of 
1492. Numerous as were the Native American victims of the murderous 
Spanish conquistadores, they were far outnumbered by the victims of mur- 
derous Spanish microbes. Why was the exchange of nasty germs between 
the Americas and Europe so unequal? Why didn't Native American dis- 
eases instead decimate the Spanish invaders, spread back to Europe, and 
wipe out 95 percent of Europe's population? Similar questions arise for 
the decimation of many other native peoples by Eurasian germs, as well as 
for the decimation of would-be European conquistadores in the tropics of 
Africa and Asia. 

Thus, questions of the animal origins of human disease lie behind the 
broadest pattern of human history, and behind some of the most important 
issues in human health today. (Think of AIDS, an explosively spreading 
human disease that appears to have evolved from a virus resident in wild 
African monkeys.) This chapter will begin by considering what a "disease" 
is, and why some microbes have evolved so as to "make us sick," whereas 
most other species of living things don't make us sick. We'll examine why 
many of our most familiar infectious diseases run in epidemics, such as our 
current AIDS epidemic and the Black Death (bubonic plague) epidemics of 
the Middle Ages. We'll then consider how the ancestors of microbes now 
confined to us transferred themselves from their original animal hosts. 
Finally, we'll see how insight into the animal origins of our infectious dis- 
eases helps explain the momentous, almost one-way exchange of germs 
between Europeans and Native Americans. 

NATURALLY, WE RE DISPOSED to think about diseases just from our 
own point of view: what can we do to save ourselves and to kill the 


microbes? Let's stamp out the scoundrels, and never mind what their 
motives are! In life in general, though, one has to understand the enemy in 
order to beat him, and that's especially true in medicine. 

Hence let's begin by temporarily setting aside our human bias and con- 
sidering disease from the microbes' point of view. After all, microbes are 
as much a product of natural selection as we are. What evolutionary bene- 
fit does a microbe derive from making us sick in bizarre ways, like giving 
us genital sores or diarrhea? And why should microbes evolve so as to kill 
us? That seems especially puzzling and self-defeating, since a microbe that 
kills its host kills itself. 

Basically, microbes evolve like other species. Evolution selects for those 
individuals most effective at producing babies and at helping them spread 
to suitable places to live. For a microbe, spread may be defined mathemati- 
cally as the number of new victims infected per each original patient. That 
number depends on how long each victim remains capable of infecting 
new victims, and how efficiently the microbe is transferred from one victim 
to the next. 

Microbes have evolved diverse ways of spreading from one person to 
another, and from animals to people. The germ that spreads better leaves 
more babies and ends up favored by natural selection. Many of our 
"symptoms" of disease actually represent ways in which some damned 
clever microbe modifies our bodies or our behavior such that we become 
enlisted to spread microbes. 

The most effortless way a germ could spread is by just waiting to be 
transmitted passively to the next victim. That's the strategy practiced by 
microbes that wait for one host to be eaten by the next host: for instance, 
salmonella bacteria, which we contract by eating already infected eggs or 
meat; the worm responsible for trichinosis, which gets from pigs to us by 
waiting for us to kill the pig and eat it without proper cooking; and the 
worm causing anisakiasis, with which sushi-loving Japanese and Ameri- 
cans occasionally infect themselves by consuming raw fish. Those parasites 
pass to a person from an eaten animal, but the virus causing laughing 
sickness (kuru) in the New Guinea highlands used to pass to a person from 
another person who was eaten. It was transmitted by cannibalism, when 
highland babies made the fatal mistake of licking their fingers after playing 
with raw brains that their mothers had just cut out of dead kuru victims 
awaiting cooking. 

Some microbes don't wait for the old host to die and get eaten, but 


instead hitchhike in the saliva of an insect that bites the old host and flies 
off to find a new host. The free ride may be provided by mosquitoes, fleas, 
lice, or tsetse flies that spread malaria, plague, typhus, or sleeping sickness, 
respectively. The dirtiest of all tricks for passive carriage is perpetrated by 
microbes that pass from a woman to her fetus and thereby infect babies 
already at birth. By playing that trick, the microbes responsible for syphi- 
lis, rubella, and now AIDS pose ethical dilemmas with which believers in 
a fundamentally just universe have had to struggle desperately. 

Other germs take matters into their own hands, figuratively speaking. 
They modify the anatomy or habits of their host in such a way as to accel- 
erate their transmission. From our perspective, the open genital sores 
caused by venereal diseases like syphilis are a vile indignity. From the 
microbes' point of view, however, they're just a useful device to enlist a 
host's help in inoculating microbes into a body cavity of a new host. The 
skin lesions caused by smallpox similarly spread microbes by direct or 
indirect body contact (occasionally very indirect, as when U.S. whites bent 
on wiping out "belligerent" Native Americans sent them gifts of blankets 
previously used by smallpox patients). 

More vigorous yet is the strategy practiced by the influenza, common 
cold, and pertussis (whooping cough) microbes, which induce the victim 
to cough or sneeze, thereby launching a cloud of microbes toward prospec- 
tive new hosts. Similarly, the cholera bacterium induces in its victim a mas- 
sive diarrhea that delivers bacteria into the water supplies of potential new 
victims, while the virus responsible for Korean hemorrhagic fever broad- 
casts itself in the urine of mice. For modification of a host's behavior, noth- 
ing matches rabies virus, which not only gets into the saliva of an infected 
dog but drives the dog into a frenzy of biting and thus infecting many new 
victims. But for physical effort on the bug's own part, the prize still goes 
to worms such as hookworms and schistosomes, which actively burrow 
through a host's skin from the water or soil into which their larvae had 
been excreted in a previous victim's feces. 

Thus, from our point of view, genital sores, diarrhea, and coughing are 
"symptoms of disease." From a germ's point of view, they're clever evolu- 
tionary strategies to broadcast the germ. That's why it's in the germ's inter- 
ests to "make us sick." But why should a germ evolve the apparently self- 
defeating strategy of killing its host? 

From the germ's perspective, that's just an unintended by-product (fat 
consolation to us!) of host symptoms promoting efficient transmission of 


microbes. Yes, an untreated cholera patient may eventually die from pro- 
ducing diarrheal fluid at a rate of several gallons per day. At least for a 
while, though, as long as the patient is still alive, the cholera bacterium 
profits from being massively broadcast into the water supplies of its next 
victims. Provided that each victim thereby infects on the average more 
than one new victim, the bacterium will spread, even though the first host 
happens to die. 

So MUCH FOR our dispassionate examination of the germ's interests. 
Now let's get back to considering our own selfish interests: to stay alive 
and healthy, best done by killing the damned germs. One common 
response of ours to infection is to develop a fever. Again, we're used to 
considering fever as a "symptom of disease," as if it developed inevitably 
without serving any function. But regulation of body temperature is under 
our genetic control and doesn't just happen by accident. A few microbes 
are more sensitive to heat than our own bodies are. By raising our body 
temperature, we in effect try to bake the germs to death before we get 
baked ourselves. 

Another common response of ours is to mobilize our immune system. 
White blood cells and other cells of ours actively seek out and kill foreign 
microbes. The specific antibodies that we gradually build up against a par- 
ticular microbe infecting us make us less likely to get reinfected once we 
become cured. As we all know from experience, there are some illnesses, 
such as flu and the common cold, to which our resistance is only tempo- 
rary; we can eventually contract the illness again. Against other illnesses, 
though — including measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, and the now 
defeated smallpox — our antibodies stimulated by one infection confer life- 
long immunity. That's the principle of vaccination: to stimulate our anti- 
body production without our having to go through the actual experience 
of the disease, by inoculating us with a dead or weakened strain of 

Alas, some clever microbes don't just cave in to our immune defenses. 
Some have learned to trick us by changing those molecular pieces of the 
microbe (its so-called antigens) that our antibodies recognize. The con- 
stant evolution or recycling of new strains of flu, with differing antigens, 
explains why your having gotten flu two years ago didn't protect you 


against the different strain that arrived this year. Malaria and sleeping 
sickness are even more slippery customers in their ability rapidly to change 
their antigens. Among the slipperiest of all is AIDS, which evolves new 
antigens even as it sits within an individual patient, thereby eventually 
overwhelming his or her immune system. 

Our slowest defensive response is through natural selection, which 
changes our gene frequencies from generation to generation. For almost 
any disease, some people prove to be genetically more resistant than are 
others. In an epidemic those people with genes for resistance to that partic- 
ular microbe are more likely to survive than are people lacking such genes. 
As a result, over the course of history, human populations repeatedly 
exposed to a particular pathogen have come to consist of a higher propor- 
tion of individuals with those genes for resistance — just because unfortu- 
nate individuals without the genes were less likely to survive to pass their 
genes on to babies. 

Fat consolation, you may be thinking again. This evolutionary response 
is not one that does the genetically susceptible dying individual any good. 
It does mean, though, that a human population as a whole becomes better 
protected against the pathogen. Examples of those genetic defenses include 
the protections (at a price) that the sickle-cell gene, Tay-Sachs gene, and 
cystic fibrosis gene may confer on African blacks, Ashkenazi Jews, and 
northern Europeans against malaria, tuberculosis, and bacterial diarrheas, 

In short, our interaction with most species, as exemplified by humming- 
birds, doesn't make us or the hummingbird "sick." Neither we nor hum- 
mingbirds have had to evolve defenses against each other. That peaceful 
relationship was able to persist because hummingbirds don't count on us 
to spread their babies or to offer our bodies for food. Hummingbirds 
evolved instead to feed on nectar and insects, which they find by using 
their own wings. 

But microbes evolved to feed on the nutrients within our own bodies, 
and they don't have wings to let them reach a new victim's body once the 
original victim is dead or resistant. Hence many germs have had to evolve 
tricks to let them spread between potential victims, and many of those 
tricks are what we experience as "symptoms of disease." We've evolved 
countertricks of our own, to which the germs have responded by evolving 
counter-countertricks. We and our pathogens are now locked in an escalat- 


ing evolutionary contest, with the death of one contestant the price of 
defeat, and with natural selection playing the role of umpire. Now let's 
consider the form of the contest: blitzkrieg or guerrilla war? 

suppose that one counts the number of cases of some particular 
infectious disease in some geographic area, and watches how the numbers 
change with time. The resulting patterns differ greatly among diseases. For 
certain diseases, like malaria or hookworm, new cases appear any month 
of any year in an affected area. So-called epidemic diseases, though, pro- 
duce no cases for a long time, then a whole wave of cases, then no more 
cases again for a while. 

Among such epidemic diseases, influenza is one personally familiar to 
most Americans, certain years being particularly bad years for us (but 
great years for the influenza virus). Cholera epidemics come at longer 
intervals, the 1991 Peruvian epidemic being the first one to reach the New 
World during the 20th century. Although today's influenza and cholera 
epidemics make front-page stories, epidemics used to be far more terrify- 
ing before the rise of modern medicine. The greatest single epidemic in 
human history was the one of influenza that killed 21 million people at the 
end of the First World War. The Black Death (bubonic plague) killed one- 
quarter of Europe's population between 1346 and 1352, with death tolls 
ranging up to 70 percent in some cities. When the Canadian Pacific Rail- 
road was being built through Saskatchewan in the early 1880s, that prov- 
ince's Native Americans, who had previously had little exposure to whites 
and their germs, died of tuberculosis at the incredible rate of 9 percent per 

The infectious diseases that visit us as epidemics, rather than as a steady 
trickle of cases, share several characteristics. First, they spread quickly and 
efficiently from an infected person to nearby healthy people, with the 
result that the whole population gets exposed within a short time. Second, 
they're "acute" illnesses: within a short time, you either die or recover 
completely. Third, the fortunate ones of us who do recover develop anti- 
bodies that leave us immune against a recurrence of the disease for a long 
time, possibly for the rest of our life. Finally, these diseases tend to be 
restricted to humans; the microbes causing them tend not to live in the soil 
or in other animals. All four of these traits apply to what Americans think 


of as the familiar acute epidemic diseases of childhood, including measles, 
rubella, mumps, pertussis, and smallpox. 

The reason why the combination of those four traits tends to make a 
disease run in epidemics is easy to understand. In simplified form, here's 
what happens. The rapid spread of microbes, and the rapid course of 
symptoms, mean that everybody in a local human population is quickly 
infected and soon thereafter is either dead or else recovered and immune. 
No one is left alive who could still be infected. But since the microbe can't 
survive except in the bodies of living people, the disease dies out, until a 
new crop of babies reaches the susceptible age — and until an infectious 
person arrives from the outside to start a new epidemic. 

A classic illustration of how such diseases occur as epidemics is the 
history of measles on the isolated Atlantic islands called the Faeroes. A 
severe epidemic of measles reached the Faeroes in 1781 and then died out, 
leaving the islands measles free until an infected carpenter arrived on a 
ship from Denmark in 1846. Within three months, almost the whole 
Faeroes population (7,782 people) had gotten measles and then either died 
or recovered, leaving the measles virus to disappear once again until the 
next epidemic. Studies show that measles is likely to die out in any human 
population numbering fewer than half a million people. Only in larger 
populations can the disease shift from one local area to another, thereby 
persisting until enough babies have been born in the originally infected 
area that measles can return there. 

What's true for measles in the Faeroes is true of our other familiar acute 
infectious diseases throughout the world. To sustain themselves, they need 
a human population that is sufficiently numerous, and sufficiently densely 
packed, that a numerous new crop of susceptible children is available for 
infection by the time the disease would otherwise be waning. Hence mea- 
sles and similar diseases are also known as crowd diseases. 

OBVIOUSLY, CROWD DISEASES could not sustain themselves in small 
bands of hunter-gatherers and slash-and-burn farmers. As tragic modern 
experience with Amazonian Indians and Pacific Islanders confirms, almost 
an entire tribelet may be wiped out by an epidemic brought by an outside 
visitor — because no one in the tribelet had any antibodies against the 
microbe. For example, in the winter of 1902 a dysentery epidemic brought 


by a sailor on the whaling ship Active killed 51 out of the 56 Sadlermiut 
Eskimos, a very isolated band of people living on Southampton Island in 
the Canadian Arctic. In addition, measles and some of our other "child- 
hood" diseases are more likely to kill infected adults than children, and all 
adults in the tribelet are susceptible. (In contrast, modern Americans rarely 
contract measles as adults, because most of them get either measles or the 
vaccine against it as children.) Having killed most of the tribelet, the epi- 
demic then disappears. The small population size of tribelets explains not 
only why they can't sustain epidemics introduced from the outside, but 
also why they never could evolve epidemic diseases of their own to give 
back to visitors. 

That's not to say, though, that small human populations are free from 
all infectious diseases. They do have infections, but only of certain types. 
Some are caused by microbes capable of maintaining themselves in ani- 
mals or in the soil, with the result that the disease doesn't die out but 
remains constantly available to infect people. For example, the yellow 
fever virus is carried by African wild monkeys, whence it can always infect 
rural human populations of Africa, whence it was carried by the transat- 
lantic slave trade to infect New World monkeys and people. 

Still other infections of small human populations are chronic diseases 
such as leprosy and yaws. Since the disease may take a very long time to 
kill its victim, the victim remains alive as a reservoir of microbes to infect 
other members of the tribelet. For instance, the Karimui Basim of the New 
Guinea highlands, where I worked in the 1960s, was occupied by an iso- 
lated population of a few thousand people, suffering from the world's 
highest incidence of leprosy — about 40 percent! Finally, small human pop- 
ulations are also susceptible to nonfatal infections against which we don't 
develop immunity, with the result that the same person can become rein- 
fected after recovering. That happens with hookworm and many other 

All these types of diseases, characteristic of small isolated populations, 
must be the oldest diseases of humanity. They were the ones we could 
evolve and sustain through the early millions of years of our evolutionary 
history, when the total human population was tiny and fragmented. These 
diseases are also shared with, or similar to the diseases of, our closest wild 
relatives, the African great apes. In contrast, the crowd diseases, which we 
discussed earlier, could have arisen only with the buildup of large, dense 
human populations. That buildup began with the rise of agriculture start- 


ing about 10,000 years ago and then accelerated with the rise of cities 
starting several thousand years ago. In fact, the first attested dates for 
many familiar infectious diseases are surprisingly recent: around 1600 B.C. 
for smallpox (as deduced from pockmarks on an Egyptian mummy), 400 
B.C. for mumps, 200 B.C. for leprosy, A.D. 1840 for epidemic polio, and 
1959 for AIDS. 

WHY DID THE rise of agriculture launch the evolution of our crowd 
infectious diseases? One reason just mentioned is that agriculture sustains 
much higher human population densities than does the hunting-gathering 
lifestyle — on the average, 10 to 100 times higher. In addition, hunter-gath- 
erers frequently shift camp and leave behind their own piles of feces with 
accumulated microbes and worm larvae. But farmers are sedentary and 
live amid their own sewage, thus providing microbes with a short path 
from one person's body into another's drinking water. 

Some farming populations make it even easier for their own fecal bacte- 
ria and worms to infect new victims, by gathering their feces and urine 
and spreading them as fertilizer on the fields where people work. Irrigation 
agriculture and fish farming provide ideal living conditions for the snails 
carrying schistosomiasis and for flukes that burrow through our skin as 
we wade through the feces-laden water. Sedentary farmers become sur- 
rounded not only by their feces but also by disease transmitting rodents, 
attracted by the farmers' stored food. The forest clearings made by African 
farmers also provide ideal breeding habitats for malaria-transmitting mos- 

If the rise of farming was thus a bonanza for our microbes, the rise of 
cities was a greater one, as still more densely packed human populations 
festered under even worse sanitation conditions. Not until the beginning 
of the 20th century did Europe's urban populations finally become self- 
sustaining: before then, constant immigration of healthy peasants from the 
countryside was necessary to make up for the constant deaths of city 
dwellers from crowd diseases. Another bonanza was the development of 
world trade routes, which by Roman times effectively joined the popula- 
tions of Europe, Asia, and North Africa into one giant breeding ground 
for microbes. That's when smallpox finally reached Rome, as the Plague 
of Antoninus, which killed millions of Roman citizens between AD 165 
and 180. 


Similarly, bubonic plague first appeared in Europe as the Plague of Jus- 
tinian (A.D. 542-43). But plague didn't begin to hit Europe with full force 
as the Black Death epidemics until A.D. 1346, when a new route for over- 
land trade with China provided rapid transit, along Eurasia's east-west 
axis, for flea-infested furs from plague-ridden areas of Central Asia to 
Europe. Today, our jet planes have made even the longest intercontinental 
flights briefer than the duration of any human infectious disease. That's 
how an Aerolineas Argentinas airplane, stopping in Lima (Peru) in 1991, 
managed to deliver dozens of cholera-infected people that same day to my 
city of Los Angeles, over 3,000 miles from Lima. The explosive increase 
in world travel by Americans, and in immigration to the United States, is 
turning us into another melting pot — this time, of microbes that we pre- 
viously dismissed as just causing exotic diseases in far-off countries. 

THUS, WHEN THE human population became sufficiently large and con- 
centrated, we reached the stage in our history at which we could at last 
evolve and sustain crowd diseases confined to our own species. But that 
conclusion presents a paradox: such diseases could never have existed 
before then! Instead, they had to evolve as new diseases. Where did those 
new diseases come from? 

Evidence has recently been emerging from molecular studies of the dis- 
ease-causing microbes themselves. For many of the microbes responsible 
for our unique diseases, molecular biologists can now identify the 
microbe's closest relatives. These also prove to be agents of crowd infec- 
tious diseases — but ones confined to various species of our domestic ani- 
mals and pets! Among animals, too, epidemic diseases require large, dense 
populations and don't afflict just any animal: they're confined mainly to 
social animals providing the necessary large populations. Hence when we 
domesticated social animals, such as cows and pigs, they were already 
afflicted by epidemic diseases just waiting to be transferred to us. 

For example, measles virus is most closely related to the virus causing 
rinderpest. That nasty epidemic disease affects cattle and many wild cud- 
chewing mammals, but not humans. Measles in turn doesn't afflict cattle. 
The close similarity of the measles virus to the rinderpest virus suggests 
that the latter transferred from cattle to humans and then evolved into the 
measles virus by changing its properties to adapt to us. That transfer is not 
at all surprising, considering that many peasant farmers live and sleep 


close to cows and their feces, urine, breath, sores, and blood. Our intimacy 
with cattle has been going on for the 9,000 years since we domesticated 
them — ample time for the rinderpest virus to discover us nearby. As Table 
11.1 illustrates, others of our familiar infectious diseases can similarly be 
traced back to diseases of our animal friends. 

given our proximity to the animals we love, we must be getting 
constantly bombarded by their microbes. Those invaders get winnowed by 
natural selection, and only a few of them succeed in establishing them- 
selves as human diseases. A quick survey of current diseases lets us trace 
out four stages in the evolution of a specialized human disease from an 
animal precursor. 

The first stage is illustrated by dozens of diseases that we now and then 
pick up directly from our pets and domestic animals. They include cat- 
scratch fever from our cats, leptospirosis from our dogs, psittacosis from 
our chickens and parrots, and brucellosis from our cattle. We're similarly 
liable to pick up diseases from wild animals, such as the tularemia that 
hunters can get from skinning wild rabbits. All those microbes are still at 
an early stage in their evolution into specialized human pathogens. They 
still don't get transmitted directly from one person to another, and even 
their transfer to us from animals remains uncommon. 

In the second stage a former animal pathogen evolves to the point where 
it does get transmitted directly between people and causes epidemics. 

TABLE 1 1. 1 

Deadly Gifts from Our Animal Friends 

Animal with Most Closely 

Human Disease 

Related Pathogen 


cattle (rinderpest) 




cattle (cowpox) or other livestock with 

related pox viruses 


pigs and ducks 


pigs, dogs 

Falciparum malaria 

birds (chickens and ducks?) 


However, the epidemic dies out for any of several reasons, such as being 
cured by modern medicine, or being stopped when everybody around has 
already been infected and either becomes immune or dies. For example, a 
previously unknown fever termed O'nyong-nyong fever appeared in East 
Africa in 1959 and proceeded to infect several million Africans. It proba- 
bly arose from a virus of monkeys and was transmitted to humans by 
mosquitoes. The fact that patients recovered quickly and became immune 
to further attack helped the new disease die out quickly. Closer to home 
for Americans, Fort Bragg fever was the name applied to a new leptospiral 
disease that broke out in the United States in the summer of 1942 and 
soon disappeared. 

A fatal disease vanishing for another reason was New Guinea's laughing 
sickness, transmitted by cannibalism and caused by a slow-acting virus 
from which no one has ever recovered. Kuru was on its way to exterminat- 
ing New Guinea's Fore tribe of 20,000 people, until the establishment of 
Australian government control around 1959 ended cannibalism and 
thereby the transmission of kuru. The annals of medicine are full of 
accounts of diseases that sound like no disease known today, but that once 
caused terrifying epidemics and then disappeared as mysteriously as they 
had come. The "English sweating sickness," which swept and terrified 
Europe between 1485 and 1552, and the "Picardy sweats" of 18th- and 
19th-century France, are just two of the many epidemic illnesses that van- 
ished long before modern medicine had devised methods for identifying 
the responsible microbes. 

A third stage in the evolution of our major diseases is represented by 
former animal pathogens that did establish themselves in humans, that 
have not (not yet?) died out, and that may or may not still become major 
killers of humanity. The future remains very uncertain for Lassa fever, 
caused by a virus derived probably from rodents. Lassa fever was first 
observed in 1969 in Nigeria, where it causes a fatal illness so contagious 
that Nigerian hospitals have been closed down if even a single case 
appears. Better established is Lyme disease, caused by a spirochete that we 
get from the bite of ticks carried by mice and deer. Although the first 
known human cases in the United States appeared only as recently as 
1962, Lyme disease is already reaching epidemic proportions in many 
parts of our country. The future of AIDS, derived from monkey viruses 
and first documented in humans around 1959, is even more secure (from 
the virus's perspective). 



The final stage of this evolution is represented by the major, long-estab- 
lished epidemic diseases confined to humans. These diseases must have 
been the evolutionary survivors of far more pathogens that tried to make 
the jump to us from animals — and mostly failed. 

What is actually going on in those stages, as an exclusive disease of 
animals transforms itself into an exclusive disease of humans? One trans- 
formation involves a change of intermediate vector: when a microbe rely- 
ing on some arthropod vector for transmission switches to a new host, the 
microbe may be forced to find a new arthropod as well. For example, 
typhus was initially transmitted between rats by rat fleas, which sufficed 
for a while to transfer typhus from rats to humans. Eventually, typhus 
microbes discovered that human body lice offered a much more efficient 
method of traveling directly between humans. Now that Americans have 
mostly deloused themselves, typhus has discovered a new route into us: by 
infecting eastern North American flying squirrels and then transferring to 
people whose attics harbor flying squirrels. 

In short, diseases represent evolution in progress, and microbes adapt 
by natural selection to new hosts and vectors. But compared with cows' 
bodies, ours offer different immune defenses, lice, feces, and chemistries. 
In that new environment, a microbe must evolve new ways to live and to 
propagate itself. In several instructive cases doctors or veterinarians have 
actually been able to observe microbes evolving those new ways. 

The best-studied case involves what happened when myxomatosis hit 
Australian rabbits. The myxo virus, native to a wild species of Brazilian 
rabbit, had been observed to cause a lethal epidemic in European domestic 
rabbits, which are a different species. Hence the virus was intentionally 
introduced to Australia in 1950 in the hopes of ridding the continent of its 
plague of European rabbits, foolishly introduced in the nineteenth century. 
In the first year, myxo produced a gratifying (to Australian farmers) 99.8 
percent mortality rate in infected rabbits. Unfortunately for the farmers, 
the death rate then dropped in the second year to 90 percent and eventu- 
ally to 25 percent, frustrating hopes of eradicating rabbits completely from 
Australia. The problem was that the myxo virus evolved to serve its own 
interests, which differed from ours as well as from those of the rabbits. 
The virus changed so as to kill fewer rabbits and to permit lethally infected 
ones to live longer before dying. As a result, a less lethal myxo virus 
spreads baby viruses to more rabbits than did the original, highly virulent 


For a similar example in humans, we have only to consider the surpris- 
ing evolution of syphilis. Today, our two immediate associations to syphilis 
are genital sores and a very slowly developing disease, leading to the death 
of many untreated victims only after many years. However, when syphilis 
was first definitely recorded in Europe in 1495, its pustules often covered 
the body from the head to the knees, caused flesh to fall off people's faces, 
and led to death within a few months. By 1546, syphilis had evolved into 
the disease with the symptoms so well known to us today. Apparently, just 
as with myxomatosis, those syphilis spirochetes that evolved so as to keep 
their victims alive for longer were thereby able to transmit their spirochete 
offspring into more victims. 

THE IMPORTANCE OF lethal microbes in human history is well illus- 
trated by Europeans' conquest and depopulation of the New World. Far 
more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the bat- 
tlefield from European guns and swords. Those germs undermined Indian 
resistance by killing most Indians and their leaders and by sapping the 
survivors' morale. For instance, in 1519 Cortes landed on the coast of 
Mexico with 600 Spaniards, to conquer the fiercely militaristic Aztec 
Empire with a population of many millions. That Cortes reached the Aztec 
capital of Tenochtitlan, escaped with the loss of "only" two-thirds of his 
force, and managed to fight his way back to the coast demonstrates both 
Spanish military advantages and the initial naivete of the Aztecs. But when 
Cortes's next onslaught came, the Aztecs were no longer naive and fought 
street by street with the utmost tenacity. What gave the Spaniards a deci- 
sive advantage was smallpox, which reached Mexico in 1520 with one 
infected slave arriving from Spanish Cuba. The resulting epidemic pro- 
ceeded to kill nearly half of the Aztecs, including Emperor Cuitlahuac. 
Aztec survivors were demoralized by the mysterious illness that killed Indi- 
ans and spared Spaniards, as if advertising the Spaniards' invincibility. By 
1618, Mexico's initial population of about 20 million had plummeted to 
about 1.6 million. 

Pizarro had similarly grim luck when he landed on the coast of Peru in 
1531 with 168 men to conquer the Inca Empire of millions. Fortunately 
for Pizarro and unfortunately for the Incas, smallpox had arrived overland 
around 1526, killing much of the Inca population, including both the 
emperor Huayna Capac and his designated successor. As we saw in Chap- 


• 211 

ter 3, the result of the throne's being left vacant was that two other sons 
of Huayna Capac, Atahuallpa and Huascar, became embroiled in a civil 
war that Pizarro exploited to conquer the divided Incas. 

When we in the United States think of the most populous New World 
societies existing in 1492, only those of the Aztecs and the Incas tend to 
come to our minds. We forget that North America also supported popu- 
lous Indian societies in the most logical place, the Mississippi Valley, which 
contains some of our best farmland today. In that case, however, conquis-i 
tadores contributed nothing directly to the societies' destruction; Eurasian 
germs, spreading in advance, did everything. When Hernando de Soto 
became the first European conquistador to march through the southeast- 
ern United States, in 1540, he came across Indian town sites abandoned 
two years earlier because the inhabitants had died in epidemics. These epi- 
demics had been transmitted from coastal Indians infected by Spaniards 
visiting the coast. The Spaniards' microbes spread to the interior in 
advance of the Spaniards themselves. 

De Soto was still able to see some of the densely populated Indian towns 
lining the lower Mississippi. After the end of his expedition, it was a long 
time before Europeans again reached the Mississippi Valley, but Eurasian 
microbes were now established in North America and kept spreading. By 
the time of the next appearance of Europeans on the lower Mississippi, 
that of French settlers in the late 1600s, almost all of those big Indian 
towns had vanished. Their relics are the great mound sites of the Missis- 
sippi Valley. Only recently have we come to realize that many of the 
mound-building societies were still largely intact when Columbus reached 
the New World, and that they collapsed (probably as a result of disease) 
between 1492 and the systematic European exploration of the Mississippi. 

When I was young, American schoolchildren were taught that North 
America had originally been occupied by only about one million Indians. 
That low number was useful in justifying the white conquest of what could 
be viewed as an almost empty continent. However, archaeological excava- 
tions, and scrutiny of descriptions left by the very first European explorers 
on our coasts, now suggest an initial number of around 20 million Indians. 
For the New World as a whole, the Indian population decline in the cen- 
tury or two following Columbus's arrival is estimated to have been as large 
as 95 percent. 

The main killers were Old World germs to which Indians had never 
been exposed, and against which they therefore had neither immune nor 


genetic resistance. Smallpox, measles, influenza, and typhus competed for 
top rank among the killers. As if these had not been enough, diphtheria, 
malaria, mumps, pertussis, plague, tuberculosis, and yellow fever came up 
close behind. In countless cases, whites were actually there to witness the 
destruction occurring when the germs arrived. For example, in 1837 the 
Mandan Indian tribe, with one of the most elaborate cultures in our Great 
Plains, contracted smallpox from a steamboat traveling up the Missouri 
River from St. Louis. The population of one Mandan village plummeted 
from 2,000 to fewer than 40 within a few weeks. 

WHILE OVER A dozen major infectious diseases of Old World origins 
became established in the New World, perhaps not a single major killer 
reached Europe from the Americas. The sole possible exception is syphilis, 
whose area of origin remains controversial. The one-sidedness of that 
exchange of germs becomes even more striking when we recall that large, 
dense human populations are a prerequisite for the evolution of our crowd 
infectious diseases. If recent reappraisals of the pre-Columbian New World 
population are correct, it was not far below the contemporary population 
of Eurasia. Some New World cities like Tenochtitlan were among the 
world's most populous cities at the time. Why didn't Tenochtitlan have 
awful germs waiting for the Spaniards? 

One possible contributing factor is that the rise of dense human popula- 
tions began somewhat later in the New World than in the Old World. 
Another is that the three most densely populated American centers — the 
Andes, Mesoamerica, and the Mississippi Valley — never became connected 
by regular fast trade into one huge breeding ground for microbes, in the 
way that Europe, North Africa, India, and China became linked in Roman 
times. Those factors still don't explain, though, why the New World 
apparently ended up with no lethal crowd epidemics at all. (Tuberculosis 
DNA has been reported from the mummy of a Peruvian Indian who died 
1,000 years ago, but the identification procedure used did not distinguish 
human tuberculosis from a closely related pathogen (Mycobacterium 
bovis) that is widespread in wild animals.) 

Instead, what must be the main reason for the failure of lethal crowd 
epidemics to arise in the Americas becomes clear when we pause to ask a 
simple question. From what microbes could they conceivably have 
evolved? We've seen that Eurasian crowd diseases evolved out of diseases 


of Eurasian herd animals that became domesticated. Whereas many such 
animals existed in Eurasia, only five animals of any sort became domesti- 
cated in the Americas: the turkey in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, the 
llama / alpaca and the guinea pig in the Andes, the Muscovy duck in tropi- 
cal South America, and the dog throughout the Americas. 

In turn, we also saw that this extreme paucity of domestic animals in 
the New World reflects the paucity of wild starting material. About 80 
percent of the big wild mammals of the Americas became extinct at the 
end of the last Ice Age, around 13,000 years ago. The few domesticates 
that remained to Native Americans were not likely sources of crowd dis- 
eases, compared with cows and pigs. Muscovy ducks and turkeys don't 
live in enormous flocks, and they're not cuddly species (like young lambs) 
with which we have much physical contact. Guinea pigs may have contrib- 
uted a trypanosome infection like Chagas' disease or leishmaniasis to our 
catalog of woes, but that's uncertain. Initially, most surprising is the 
absence of any human disease derived from llamas (or alpacas), which it's 
tempting to consider the Andean equivalent of Eurasian livestock. How- 
ever, llamas had four strikes against them as a source of human pathogens: 
they were kept in smaller herds than were sheep and goats and pigs; their 
total numbers were never remotely as large as those of the Eurasian popu- 
lations of domestic livestock, since llamas never spread beyond the Andes; 
people don't drink (and get infected by) llama milk; and llamas aren't kept 
indoors, in close association with people. In contrast, human mothers in 
the New Guinea highlands often nurse piglets, and pigs as well as cows 
are frequently kept inside the huts of peasant farmers. 

THE HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE of animal-derived diseases extends far 
beyond the collision of the Old and the New Worlds. Eurasian germs 
played a key role in decimating native peoples in many other parts of the 
world, including Pacific islanders, Aboriginal Australians, and the Khoisan 
peoples (Hottentots and Bushmen) of southern Africa. Cumulative mortal- 
ities of these previously unexposed peoples from Eurasian germs ranged 
from 50 percent to 100 percent. For instance, the Indian population of 
Hispaniola declined from around 8 million, when Columbus arrived in 
A.D. 1492, to zero by 1535. Measles reached Fiji with a Fijian chief 
returning from a visit to Australia in 1875, and proceeded to kill about 
one-quarter of all Fijians then alive (after most Fijians had already been 


killed by epidemics beginning with the first European visit, in 1791). Syph- 
ilis, gonorrhea, tuberculosis, and influenza arriving with Captain Cook in 
1779, followed by a big typhoid epidemic in 1804 and numerous "minor" 
epidemics, reduced Hawaii's population from around half a million in 
1779 to 84,000 in 1853, the year when smallpox finally reached Hawaii 
and killed around 10,000 of the survivors. These examples could be 
multiplied almost indefinitely. 

However, germs did not act solely to Europeans' advantage. While the 
New World and Australia did not harbor native epidemic diseases 
awaiting Europeans, tropical Asia, Africa, Indonesia, and New Guinea cer- 
tainly did. Malaria throughout the tropical Old World, cholera in tropical 
Southeast Asia, and yellow fever in tropical Africa were (and still are) the 
most notorious of the tropical killers. They posed the most serious obstacle 
to European colonization of the tropics, and they explain why the Euro- 
pean colonial partitioning of New Guinea and most of Africa was not 
accomplished until nearly 400 years after European partitioning of the 
New World began. Furthermore, once malaria and yellow fever did 
become transmitted to the Americas by European ship traffic, they 
emerged as the major impediment to colonization of the New World trop- 
ics as well. A familiar example is the role of those two diseases in aborting 
the French effort, and nearly aborting the ultimately successful American 
effort, to construct the Panama Canal. 

Bearing all these facts in mind, let's try to regain our sense of perspective 
about the role of germs in answering Yak's question. There is no doubt 
that Europeans developed a big advantage in weaponry, technology, and 
political organization over most of the non-European peoples that they 
conquered. But that advantage alone doesn't fully explain how initially so 
few European immigrants came to supplant so much of the native popula- 
tion of the Americas and some other parts of the world. That might not 
have happened without Europe's sinister gift to other continents — the 
germs evolving from Eurasians' long intimacy with domestic animals. 



history as a progression from savagery to civilization. Key hall- 
marks of this transition included the development of agriculture, metal- 
lurgy, complex technology, centralized government, and writing. Of these, 
writing was traditionally the one most restricted geographically: until the 
expansions of Islam and of colonial Europeans, it was absent from Austra- 
lia, Pacific islands, subequatorial Africa, and the whole New World except 
for a small part of Mesoamerica. As a result of that confined distribution, 
peoples who pride themselves on being civilized have always viewed writ- 
ing as the sharpest distinction raising them above "barbarians" or "sav- 

Knowledge brings power. Hence writing brings power to modern socie- 
ties, by making it possible to transmit knowledge with far greater accuracy 
and in far greater quantity and detail, from more distant lands and more 
remote times. Of course, some peoples (notably the Incas) managed to 
administer empires without writing, and "civilized" peoples don't always 
defeat "barbarians," as Roman armies facing the Huns learned. But the 
European conquests of the Americas, Siberia, and Australia illustrate the 
typical recent outcome. 

Writing marched together with weapons, microbes, and centralized 


political organization as a modern agent of conquest. The commands of 
the monarchs and merchants who organized colonizing fleets were con- 
veyed in writing. The fleets set their courses by maps and written sailing 
directions prepared by previous expeditions. Written accounts of earlier 
expeditions motivated later ones, by describing the wealth and fertile lands 
awaiting the conquerors. The accounts taught subsequent explorers what 
conditions to expect, and helped them prepare themselves. The resulting 
empires were administered with the aid of writing. While all those types of 
information were also transmitted by other means in preliterate societies, 
writing made the transmission easier, more detailed, more accurate, and 
more persuasive. 

Why, then, did only some peoples and not others develop writing, given 
its overwhelming value? For example, why did no traditional hunters- 
gatherers evolve or adopt writing? Among island empires, why did writing 
arise in Minoan Crete but not in Polynesian Tonga? How many separate 
times did writing evolve in human history, under what circumstances, and 
for what uses? Of those peoples who did develop it, why did some do 
so much earlier than others? For instance, today almost all Japanese and 
Scandinavians are literate but most Iraqis are not: why did writing never- 
theless arise nearly four thousand years earlier in Iraq? 

The diffusion of writing from its sites of origin also raises important 
questions. Why, for instance, did it spread to Ethiopia and Arabia from 
the Fertile Crescent, but not to the Andes from Mexico? Did writing sys- 
tems spread by being copied, or did existing systems merely inspire neigh- 
boring peoples to invent their own systems? Given a writing system that 
works well for one language, how do you devise a system for a different 
language? Similar questions arise whenever one tries to understand the 
origins and spread of many other aspects of human culture — such as tech- 
nology, religion, and food production. The historian interested in such 
questions about writing has the advantage that they can often be answered 
in unique detail by means of the written record itself. We shall therefore 
trace writing's development not only because of its inherent importance, 
but also for the general insights into cultural history that it provides. 

THE THREE BASIC strategies underlying writing systems differ in the 
size of the speech unit denoted by one written sign: either a single basic 
sound, a whole syllable, or a whole word. Of these, the one employed 


today by most peoples is the alphabet, which ideally would provide a 
unique sign (termed a letter) for each basic sound of the language (a pho- 
neme). Actually, most alphabets consist of only about 20 or 30 letters, and 
most languages have more phonemes than their alphabets have letters. For 
example, English transcribes about 40 phonemes with a mere 26 letters. 
Hence most alphabetically written languages, including English, are forced 
to assign several different phonemes to the same letter and to represent 
some phonemes by combinations of letters, such as the English two-letter 
combinations sh and tb (each represented by a single letter in the Russian 
and Greek alphabets, respectively). 

The second strategy uses so-called logograms, meaning that one written 
sign stands for a whole word. That's the function of many signs of Chinese 
writing and of the predominant Japanese writing system (termed kanji). 
Before the spread of alphabetic writing, systems making much use of logo- 
grams were more common and included Egyptian hieroglyphs, Maya 
glyphs, and Sumerian cuneiform. 

The third strategy, least familiar to most readers of this book, uses a 
sign for each syllable. In practice, most such writing systems (termed sylla- 
baries) provide distinct signs just for syllables of one consonant followed 
by one vowel (like the syllables of the word "fa-mi-ly"), and resort to 
various tricks in order to write other types of syllables by means of those 
signs. Syllabaries were common in ancient times, as exemplified by the 
Linear B writing of Mycenaean Greece. Some syllabaries persist today, the 
most important being the kana syllabary that the Japanese use for tele- 
grams, bank statements, and texts for blind readers. 

I've intentionally termed these three approaches strategies rather than 
writing systems. No actual writing system employs one strategy exclu- 
sively. Chinese writing is not purely logographic, nor is English writing 
purely alphabetic. Like all alphabetic writing systems, English uses many 
logograms, such as numerals, $, %, and + : that is, arbitrary signs, not 
made up of phonetic elements, representing whole words. "Syllabic" Lin- 
ear B had many logograms, and "logographic" Egyptian hieroglyphs 
included many syllabic signs as well as a virtual alphabet of individual 
letters for each consonant. 

INVENTING A WRITING system from scratch must have been incompa- 
rably more difficult than borrowing and adapting one. The first scribes 


had to settle on basic principles that we now take for granted. For exam- 
ple, they had to figure out how to decompose a continuous utterance into 
speech units, regardless of whether those units were taken as words, sylla- 
bles, or phonemes. They had to learn to recognize the same sound or 
speech unit through all our normal variations in speech volume, pitch, 
speed, emphasis, phrase grouping, and individual idiosyncrasies of pro- 
nunciation. They had to decide that a writing system should ignore all 
of that variation. They then had to devise ways to represent sounds by 

Somehow, the first scribes solved all those problems, without having in 
front of them any example of the final result to guide their efforts. That 
task was evidently so difficult that there have been only a few occasions 
in history when people invented writing entirely on their own. The two 
indisputably independent inventions of writing were achieved by the Su-> 
merians of Mesopotamia somewhat before 3000 B.C. and by Mexican 
Indians before 600 B.C. (Figure 12.1); Egyptian writing of 3000 B.C. and 
Chinese writing (by 1300 B.C.) may also have arisen independently. Proba- 
bly all other peoples who have developed writing since then have bor- 
rowed, adapted, or at least been inspired by existing systems. 

The independent invention that we can trace in greatest detail is histo- 
ry's oldest writing system, Sumerian cuneiform (Figure 12.1). For thou- 
sands of years before it jelled, people in some farming villages of the Fertile 
Crescent had been using clay tokens of various simple shapes for account- 
ing purposes, such as recording numbers of sheep and amounts of grain. 
In the last centuries before 3000 B.C., developments in accounting technol- 
ogy, format, and signs rapidly led to the first system of writing. One such 
technological innovation was the use of fiat clay tablets as a convenient 
writing surface. Initially, the clay was scratched with pointed tools, which 
gradually yielded to reed styluses for neatly pressing a mark into the tablet. 
Developments in format included the gradual adoption of conventions 
whose necessity is now universally accepted: that writing should be orga- 
nized into ruled rows or columns (horizontal rows for the Sumerians, as 
for modern Europeans); that the lines should be read in a constant direc- 
tion (left to right for Sumerians, as for modern Europeans); and that the 
lines should be read from top to bottom of the tablet rather than vice 

But the crucial change involved the solution of the problem basic to 



Locations of some scripts mentioned in the text 

1 . Sumer 

2. Mesoamerica 
?3. China 

??4. Egypt 


9. West Semitic, Phoenician 

10. Ethiopian 

11. Korea (han'gul) 

13. Italy (Roman, Etruscan) 

14. Greece 

15. Ireland (ogham) 

5. Proto-Elamite 

7. Hittite 

8. Indus Valley 
17. Easter Island 

6. Crete (Linear A and B) 
12. Japan (kana) 
16. Cherokee 

Figure 12.1. The question marks next to China and Egypt denote some 
doubt whether early writing in those areas arose completely indepen- 
dently or was stimulated by writing systems that arose elsewhere earlier. 
"Other" refers to scripts that were neither alphabets nor syllabaries and 
that probably arose under the influence of earlier scripts. 

virtually all writing systems: how to devise agreed-on visible marks that 
represent actual spoken sounds, rather than only ideas or else words inde- 
pendent of their pronunciation. Early stages in the development of the 
solution have been detected especially in thousands of clay tablets exca- 
vated from the ruins of the former Sumerian city of Uruk, on the Euphrates 


River about 200 miles southeast of modern Baghdad. The first Sumerian 
writing signs were recognizable pictures of the object referred to (for 
instance, a picture of a fish or a bird). Naturally, those pictorial signs con- 
sisted mainly of numerals plus nouns for visible objects; the resulting texts 
were merely accounting reports in a telegraphic shorthand devoid of gram- 
matical elements. Gradually, the forms of the signs became more abstract, 
especially when the pointed writing tools were replaced by reed styluses. 
New signs were created by combining old signs to produce new meanings: 
for example, the sign for head was combined with the sign for bread in 
order to produce a sign signifying eat. 

The earliest Sumerian writing consisted of nonphonetic logograms. 
That's to say, it was not based on the specific sounds of the Sumerian 
language, and it could have been pronounced with entirely different 
sounds to yield the same meaning in any other language — just as the 
numeral sign 4 is variously pronounced four, chetwire, nelja, and empat 
by speakers of English, Russian, Finnish, and Indonesian, respectively. Per- 
haps the most important single step in the whole history of writing was 
the Sumerians' introduction of phonetic representation, initially by writing 
an abstract noun (which could not be readily drawn as a picture) by means 
of the sign for a depictable noun that had the same phonetic pronuncia- 
tion. For instance, it's easy to draw a recognizable picture of arrow, hard 
to draw a recognizable picture of life, but both are pronounced ti in Sume- 
rian, so a picture of an arrow came to mean either arrow or life. The 
resulting ambiguity was resolved by the addition of a silent sign called a 
determinative, to indicate the category of nouns to which the intended 
object belonged. Linguists term this decisive innovation, which also under- 
lies puns today, the rebus principle. 

Once Sumerians had hit upon this phonetic principle, they began to use 
it for much more than just writing abstract nouns. They employed it to 
write syllables or letters constituting grammatical endings. For instance, in 
English it's not obvious how to draw a picture of the common syllable 
-tion, but we could instead draw a picture illustrating the verb shun, which 
has the same pronunciation. Phonetically interpreted signs were also used 
to "spell out" longer words, as a series of pictures each depicting the sound 
of one syllable. That's as if an English speaker were to write the word 
believe as a picture of a bee followed by a picture of a leaf. Phonetic signs 
also permitted scribes to use the same pictorial sign for a set of related 
words (such as tooth, speech, and speaker), but to resolve the ambiguity 


An example of Babylonian cuneiform writing, derived ultimately from 
Sumerian cuneiform. 

with an additional phonetically interpreted sign (such as selecting the sign 
for two, each, or peak). 

Thus, Sumerian writing came to consist of a complex mixture of three 
types of signs: logograms, referring to a whole word or name; phonetic 
signs, used in effect for spelling syllables, letters, grammatical elements, or 


parts of words; and determinatives, which were not pronounced but were 
used to resolve ambiguities. Nevertheless, the phonetic signs in Sumerian 
writing fell far short of a complete syllabary or alphabet. Some Sumerian 
syllables lacked any written signs; the same sign could be pronounced in 
different ways; and the same sign could variously be read as a word, a 
syllable, or a letter. 

Besides Sumerian cuneiform, the other certain instance of independent 
origins of writing in human history comes from Native American societies 
of Mesoamerica, probably southern Mexico. Mesoamerican writing is 
believed to have arisen independently of Old World writing, because there 
is no convincing evidence for pre-Norse contact of New World societies 
with Old World societies possessing writing. In addition, the forms of Me- 
soamerican writing signs were entirely different from those of any Old 
World script. About a dozen Mesoamerican scripts are known, all or most 
of them apparently related to each other (for example, in their numerical 
and calendrical systems), and most of them still only partially deciphered. 
At the moment, the earliest preserved Mesoamerican script is from the 
Zapotec area of southern Mexico around 600 B.C., but by far the best- 
understood one is of the Lowland Maya region, where the oldest known 
written date corresponds to A.D. 292. 

Despite its independent origins and distinctive sign forms, Maya writing 
is organized on principles basically similar to those of Sumerian writing 
and other western Eurasian writing systems that Sumerian inspired. Like 
Sumerian, Maya writing used both logograms and phonetic signs. Logo- 
grams for abstract words were often derived by the rebus principle. That 
is, an abstract word was written with the sign for another word pro- 
nounced similarly but with a different meaning that could be readily 
depicted. Like the signs of Japan's kana and Mycenaean Greece's Linear B 
syllabaries, Maya phonetic signs were mostly signs for syllables of one 
consonant plus one vowel (such as ta, te, ti, to, tu). Like letters of the early 
Semitic alphabet, Maya syllabic signs were derived from pictures of the 
object whose pronunciation began with that syllable (for example, the 
Maya syllabic sign "ne" resembles a tail, for which the Maya word is neb). 

All of these parallels between Mesoamerican and ancient western Eur- 
asian writing testify to the underlying universality of human creativity. 
While Sumerian and Mesoamerican languages bear no special relation to 
each other among the world's languages, both raised similar basic issues 
in reducing them to writing. The solutions that Sumerians invented before 

A painting of the Rajasthani or Gujarati school, from the Indian subcon- 
tinent in the early 17th century. The script, like most other modern 
Indian scripts, is derived from ancient India's Brahmi script, which was 
probably derived in turn by idea diffusion from the Aramaic alphabet 
around the seventh century B.C. Indian scripts incorporated the alpha- 
betic principle but independently devised letter forms, letter sequence, 
and vowel treatment without resort to blueprint copying. 


3000 B.C. were reinvented, halfway around the world, by early Mesoamer- 
ican Indians before 600 B.C. 

WITH THE POSSIBLE exceptions of the Egyptian, Chinese, and Easter 
Island writing to be considered later, all other writing systems devised any- 
where in the world, at any time, appear to have been descendants of sys- 
tems modified from or at least inspired by Sumerian or early 
Mesoamerican writing. One reason why there were so few independent 
origins of writing is the great difficulty of inventing it, as we have already 
discussed. The other reason is that other opportunities for the independent 
invention of writing were preempted by Sumerian or early Mesoamerican 
writing and their derivatives. 

We know that the development of Sumerian writing took at least hun- 
dreds, possibly thousands, of years. As we shall see, the prerequisites for 
those developments consisted of several features of human society that 
determined whether a society would find writing useful, and whether the 
society could support the necessary specialist scribes. Many other human 
societies besides those of the Sumerians and early Mexicans — such as those 
of ancient India, Crete, and Ethiopia — evolved these prerequisites. How- 
ever, the Sumerians and early Mexicans happened to have been the first to 
evolve them in the Old World and the New World, respectively. Once the 
Sumerians and early Mexicans had invented writing, the details or princi- 
ples of their writing spread rapidly to other societies, before they could go 
through the necessary centuries or millennia of independent experimenta- 
tion with writing themselves. Thus, that potential for other, independent 
experiments was preempted or aborted. 

The spread of writing has occurred by either of two contrasting meth- 
ods, which find parallels throughout the history of technology and ideas. 
Someone invents something and puts it to use. How do you, another 
would-be user, then design something similar for your own use, knowing 
that other people have already got their own model built and working? 

Such transmission of inventions assumes a whole spectrum of forms. At 
the one end lies "blueprint copying," when you copy or modify an avail- 
able detailed blueprint. At the opposite end lies "idea diffusion," when 
you receive little more than the basic idea and have to reinvent the details. 
Knowing that it can be done stimulates you to try to do it yourself, but 


your eventual specific solution may or may not resemble that of the first 

To take a recent example, historians are still debating whether blueprint 
copying or idea diffusion contributed more to Russia's building of an 
atomic bomb. Did Russia's bomb-building efforts depend critically on 
blueprints of the already constructed American bomb, stolen and transmit- 
ted to Russia by spies? Or was it merely that the revelation of America's 
A-bomb at Hiroshima at last convinced Stalin of the feasibility of building 
such a bomb, and that Russian scientists then reinvented the principles in 
an independent crash program, with little detailed guidance from the ear- 
lier American effort? Similar questions arise for the history of the develop- 
ment of wheels, pyramids, and gunpowder. Let's now examine how 
blueprint copying and idea diffusion contributed to the spread of writing 

TODAY, PROFESSIONAL LINGUISTS design writing systems for 
unwritten languages by the method of blueprint copying. Most such tailor- 
made systems modify existing alphabets, though some instead design sylla- 
baries. For example, missionary linguists are working on modified Roman 
alphabets for hundreds of New Guinea and Native American languages. 
Government linguists devised the modified Roman alphabet adopted in 
1928 by Turkey for writing Turkish, as well as the modified Cyrillic alpha- 
bets designed for many tribal languages of Russia. 

In a few cases, we also know something about the individuals who 
designed writing systems by blueprint copying in the remote past. For 
instance, the Cyrillic alphabet itself (the one still used today in Russia) is 
descended from an adaptation of Greek and Hebrew letters devised by 
Saint Cyril, a Greek missionary to the Slavs in the ninth century A.D. The 
first preserved texts for any Germanic language (the language family that 
includes English) are in the Gothic alphabet created by Bishop Ulfilas, a 
missionary living with the Visigoths in what is now Bulgaria in the fourth 
century A.D. Like Saint Cyril's invention, Ulfilas's alphabet was a mish- 
\ mash of letters borrowed from different sources: about 20 Greek letters, 
about five Roman letters, and two letters either taken from the runic 
alphabet or invented by Ulfilas himself. Much more often, we know noth- 
ing about the individuals responsible for devising famous alphabets of the 


past. But it's still possible to compare newly emerged alphabets of the past 
with previously existing ones, and to deduce from letter forms which 
existing ones served as models. For the same reason, we can be sure that 
the Linear B syllabary of Mycenaean Greece had been adapted by around 
1400 B.C. from the Linear A syllabary of Minoan Crete. 

At all of the hundreds of times when an existing writing system of one 
language has been used as a blueprint to adapt to a different language, 
some problems have arisen, because no two languages have exactly the 
same sets of sounds. Some inherited letters or signs may simply be 
dropped, when the sounds that those letters represent in the lending lan- 
guage do not exist in the borrowing language. For example, Finnish lacks 
the sounds that many other European languages express by the letters b, 
c, f, g, w, x, and z, so the Finns dropped these letters from their version of 
the Roman alphabet. There has also been a frequent reverse problem, of 
devising letters to represent "new" sounds present in the borrowing lan- 
guage but absent in the lending language. That problem has been solved 
in several different ways: such as using an arbitrary combination of two 
or more letters (like the English th to represent a sound for which the 
Greek and runic alphabets used a single letter); adding a small distinguish- 
ing mark to an existing letter (like the Spanish tilde n, the German umlaut 
6, and the proliferation of marks dancing around Polish and Turkish let- 
ters); co-opting existing letters for which the borrowing language had no 
use (such as modern Czechs recycling the letter c of the Roman alphabet to 
express the Czech sound ts); or just inventing a new letter (as our medieval 
ancestors did when they created the new letters j, u, and w). 

The Roman alphabet itself was the end product of a long sequence of 
blueprint copying. Alphabets apparently arose only once in human his- 
tory: among speakers of Semitic languages, in the area from modern Syria 
to the Sinai, during the second millennium B.C. All of the hundreds of 
historical and now existing alphabets were ultimately derived from that 
ancestral Semitic alphabet, in a few cases (such as the Irish ogham alpha- 
bet) by idea diffusion, but in most by actual copying and modification of 
letter forms. 

That evolution of the alphabet can be traced back to Egyptian hiero- 
glyphs, which included a complete set of 24 signs for the 24 Egyptian 
consonants. The Egyptians never took the logical (to us) next step of dis- 
carding all their logograms, determinatives, and signs for pairs and trios 
of consonants, and using just their consonantal alphabet. Starting around 


1700 B.C., though, Semites familiar with Egyptian hieroglyphs did begin 
to experiment with that logical step. 

Restricting signs to those for single consonants was only the first of 
three crucial innovations that distinguished alphabets from other writing 
systems. The second was to help users memorize the alphabet by placing 
the letters in a fixed sequence and giving them easy-to-remember names. 
Our English names are mostly meaningless monosyllables ("a," "bee," 
"cee," "dee," and so on). But the Semitic names did possess meaning in 
Semitic languages: they were the words for familiar objects ('aleph = ox, 
beth = house, gimel = camel, daleth = door, and so on). These Semitic 
words were related "acrophonically" to the Semitic consonants to which 
they refer: that is, the first letter of the word for the object was also the 
letter named for the object ('a, b, g, d, and so on). In addition, the earliest 
forms of the Semitic letters appear in many cases to have been pictures of 
those same objects. All these features made the forms, names, and 
sequence of Semitic alphabet letters easy to remember. Many modern al- 
phabets, including ours, retain with minor modifications that original 
sequence (and, in the case of Greek, even the letters' original names: alpha, 
beta, gamma, delta, and so on) over 3,000 years later. One minor modifi- 
cation that readers will already have noticed is that the Semitic and Greek 
g became the Roman and English c, while the Romans invented a new g 
in its present position. 

The third and last innovation leading to modern alphabets was to pro- 
vide for vowels. Already in the early days of the Semitic alphabet, experi- 
ments began with methods for writing vowels by adding small extra letters 
to indicate selected vowels, or else by dots, lines, or hooks sprinkled over 
the consonantal letters. In the eighth century B.C. the Greeks became the 
first people to indicate all vowels systematically by the same types of letters 
used for consonants. Greeks derived the forms of their vowel letters a - e - 
n - i - o by "co-opting" five letters used in the Phoenician alphabet for 
consonantal sounds lacking in Greek. 

From those earliest Semitic alphabets, one line of blueprint copying and 
evolutionary modification led via early Arabian alphabets to the modern 
Ethiopian alphabet. A far more important line evolved by way of the Ara- 
maic alphabet, used for official documents of the Persian Empire, into the 
modern Arabic, Hebrew, Indian, and Southeast Asian alphabets. But the 
line most familiar to European and American readers is the one that led 
via the Phoenicians to the Greeks by the early eighth century B.C., thence 


to the Etruscans in the same century, and in the next century to the 
Romans, whose alphabet with slight modifications is the one used to print 
this book. Thanks to their potential advantage of combining precision 
with simplicity, alphabets have now been adopted in most areas of the 
modern world. 

WHILE BLUEPRINT COPYING and modification are the most straight- 
forward option for transmitting technology, that option is sometimes 
unavailable. Blueprints may be kept secret, or they may be unreadable to 
someone not already steeped in the technology. Word may trickle through 
about an invention made somewhere far away, but the details may not get 
transmitted. Perhaps only the basic idea is known: someone has succeeded, 
somehow, in achieving a certain final result. That knowledge may never- 
theless inspire others, by idea diffusion, to devise their own routes to such 
a result. 

A striking example from the history of writing is the origin of the sylla- 
bary devised in Arkansas around 1820 by a Cherokee Indian named 
Sequoyah, for writing the Cherokee language. Sequoyah observed that 
white people made marks on paper, and that they derived great advantage 
by using those marks to record and repeat lengthy speeches. However, the 
detailed operations of those marks remained a mystery to him, since (like 
most Cherokees before 1820) Sequoyah was illiterate and could neither 
speak nor read English. Because he was a blacksmith, Sequoyah began by 
devising an accounting system to help him keep track of his customers' 
debts. He drew a picture of each customer; then he drew circles and lines 
of various sizes to represent the amount of money owed. 

Around 1810, Sequoyah decided to go on to design a system for writing 
the Cherokee language. He again began by drawing pictures, but gave 
them up as too complicated and too artistically demanding. He next 
started to invent separate signs for each word, and again became dissatis- 
fied when he had coined thousands of signs and still needed more. 

Finally, Sequoyah realized that words were made up of modest numbers 
of different sound bites that recurred in many different words — what we 
would call syllables. He initially devised 200 syllabic signs and gradually 
reduced them to 85, most of them for combinations of one consonant and 
one vowel. 

As one source of the signs themselves, Sequoyah practiced copying the 










tTga \Jka 


















V7na Ij-hnaVXnah 

» lne 







» quo 



t)sa (k)s 





Oda Wta 

ijde lite 




(ftdla £tla 





G" tsa 






Gt wa 









77ie sef of signs that Sequoyah devised to represent syllables of the Chero- 
kee language. 

letters from an English spelling book given to him by a schoolteacher. 
About two dozen of his Cherokee syllabic signs were taken directly from 
those letters, though of course with completely changed meanings, since 
Sequoyah did not know the English meanings. For example, he chose the 
shapes D, R, b, h to represent the Cherokee syllables a, e, si, and ni, respec- 
tively, while the shape of the numeral 4 was borrowed for the syllable se. 
He coined other signs by modifying English letters, such as designing the 

signs G, U, and V to represent the syllables yu, sa, and na, respectively. 

Still other signs were entirely of his creation, such as r, I , and n for ho, It, 
and nu, respectively. Sequoyah's syllabary is widely admired by profes- 
sional linguists for its good fit to Cherokee sounds, and for the ease with 
which it can be learned. Within a short time, the Cherokees achieved 
almost 100 percent literacy in the syllabary, bought a printing press, had 
Sequoyah's signs cast as type, and began printing books and newspapers. 

Cherokee writing remains one of the best-attested examples of a script 
that arose through idea diffusion. We know that Sequoyah received paper 


and other writing materials, the idea of a writing system, the idea of using 
separate marks, and the forms of several dozen marks. Since, however, he 
could neither read nor write English, he acquired no details or even princi- 
ples from the existing scripts around him. Surrounded by alphabets he 
could not understand, he instead independently reinvented a syllabary, 
unaware that the Minoans of Crete had already invented another syllabary 
3,500 years previously. 

SEQUOYAH'S EXAMPLE CAN serve as a model for how idea diffusion 
probably led to many writing systems of ancient times as well. The han'gul 
alphabet devised by Korea's King Sejong in A.D. 1446 for the Korean lan- 
guage was evidently inspired by the block format of Chinese characters 
and by the alphabetic principle of Mongol or Tibetan Buddhist writing. 
However, King Sejong invented the forms of han'gul letters and several 
unique features of his alphabet, including the grouping of letters by sylla- 
bles into square blocks, the use of related letter shapes to represent related 
vowel or consonant sounds, and shapes of consonant letters that depict 
the position in which the lips or tongue are held to pronounce that conso- 
nant. The ogham alphabet used in Ireland and parts of Celtic Britain from 
around the fourth century A.D. similarly adopted the alphabetic principle 
(in this case, from existing European alphabets) but again devised unique 
letter forms, apparently based on a five-finger system of hand signals. 

We can confidently attribute the han'gul and ogham alphabets to idea 
diffusion rather than to independent invention in isolation, because we 
know that both societies were in close contact with societies possessing 
writing and because it is clear which foreign scripts furnished the inspira- 
tion. In contrast, we can confidently attribute Sumerian cuneiform and the 
earliest Mesoamerican writing to independent invention, because at the 
times of their first appearances there existed no other script in their respec- 
tive hemispheres that could have inspired them. Still debatable are the ori- 
gins of writing on Easter Island, in China, and in Egypt. 

The Polynesians living on Easter Island, in the Pacific Ocean, had a 
unique script of which the earliest preserved examples date back only to 
about A.D. 1851, long after Europeans reached Easter in 1722. Perhaps 
writing arose independently on Easter before the arrival of Europeans, 
although no examples have survived. But the most straightforward inter- 
pretation is to take the facts at face value, and to assume that Easter 


Af- O ^ 

0| II LHI 

# tiO| 

if (XI 

*|E>*I fexW jil&jSUbil 
AhoiW -^-fe s,^ 


■£01 zim 

«t £ (H-S- tttOI 

£ ± §t 

A Korean text (the poem "Flowers on the Hills" by So-Wol Kim), illus- 
trating the remarkable Han'gul writing system. Each square block repre- 
sents a syllable, but each component sign within the block represents a 

Islanders were stimulated to devise a script after seeing the written procla- 
mation of annexation that a Spanish expedition handed to them in the 
year 1770. 

As for Chinese writing, first attested around 1300 B.C. but with possible 
earlier precursors, it too has unique local signs and some unique principles, 
and most scholars assume that it evolved independently. Writing had 
developed before 3000 B.C. in Sumer, 4,000 miles west of early Chinese 
urban centers, and appeared by 2200 B.C. in the Indus Valley, 2,600 miles 
west, but no early writing systems are known from the whole area between 
the Indus Valley and China. Thus, there is no evidence that the earliest 
Chinese scribes could have had knowledge of any other writing system to 
inspire them. 

Egyptian hieroglyphics, the most famous of all ancient writing systems, 
are also usually assumed to be the product of independent invention, but 
the alternative interpretation of idea diffusion is more feasible than in the 


case of Chinese writing. Hieroglyphic writing appeared rather suddenly, in 
nearly full-blown form, around 3000 B.C. Egypt lay only 800 miles west 
of Sumer, with which Egypt had trade contacts. I find it suspicious that no 
evidence of a gradual development of hieroglyphs has come down to us, 
even though Egypt's dry climate would have been favorable for preserving 
earlier experiments in writing, and though the similarly dry climate of 
Sumer has yielded abundant evidence of the development of Sumerian 
cuneiform for at least several centuries before 3000 B.C. Equally suspicious 
is the appearance of several other, apparently independently designed, 
writing systems in Iran, Crete, and Turkey (so-called proto-Elamite writ- 
ing, Cretan pictographs, and Hieroglyphic Hittite, respectively), after the 
rise of Sumerian and Egyptian writing. Although each of those systems 
used distinctive sets of signs not borrowed from Egypt or Sumer, the peo- 
ples involved could hardly have been unaware of the writing of their neigh- 
boring trade partners. 

It would be a remarkable coincidence if, after millions of years of 
human existence without writing, all those Mediterranean and Near East- 
ern societies had just happened to hit independently on the idea of writing 
within a few centuries of each other. Hence a possible interpretation seems 
to me idea diffusion, as in the case of Sequoyah's syllabary. That is, Egyp- 
tians and other peoples may have learned from Sumerians about the idea 

An example of Chinese writing: a handscroll by Wu Li, from A.D. 1679. 


An example of Egyptian hieroglyphs: the funerary papyrus of Princess 

of writing and possibly about some of the principles, and then devised 
other principles and all the specific forms of the letters for themselves. 

LETUS NOW return to the main question with which we began this chap- 
ter: why did writing arise in and spread to some societies, but not to many 
others? Convenient starting points for our discussion are the limited capa- 
bilities, uses, and users of early writing systems. 

Early scripts were incomplete, ambiguous, or complex, or all three. For 


example, the oldest Sumerian cuneiform writing could not render normal 
prose but was a mere telegraphic shorthand, whose vocabulary was 
restricted to names, numerals, units of measure, words for objects counted, 
and a few adjectives. That's as if a modern American court clerk were 
forced to write "John 27 fat sheep," because English writing lacked the 
necessary words and grammar to write "We order John to deliver the 27 
fat sheep that he owes to the government." Later Sumerian cuneiform did 
become capable of rendering prose, but it did so by the messy system that 
I've already described, with mixtures of logograms, phonetic signs, and 
unpronounced determinatives totaling hundreds of separate signs. Linear 
B, the writing of Mycenaean Greece, was at least simpler, being based on 
a syllabary of about 90 signs plus logograms. Offsetting that virtue, Linear 
B was quite ambiguous. It omitted any consonant at the end of a word, 
and it used the same sign for several related consonants (for instance, one 
sign for both / and r, another for p and b and ph, and still another for g 
and k and kh). We know how confusing we find it when native-born Japa- 
nese people speak English without distinguishing / and r: imagine the con- 
fusion if our alphabet did the same while similarly homogenizing the other 
consonants that I mentioned! It's as if we were to spell the words "rap," 
"lap," "lab," and "laugh" identically. 

A related limitation is that few people ever learned to write these early 
scripts. Knowledge of writing was confined to professional scribes in the 
employ of the king or temple. For instance, there is no hint that Linear B 
was used or understood by any Mycenaean Greek beyond small cadres of 
palace bureaucrats. Since individual Linear B scribes can be distinguished 
by their handwriting on preserved documents, we can say that all pre- 
served Linear B documents from the palaces of Knossos and Pylos are the 
work of a mere 75 and 40 scribes, respectively. 

The uses of these telegraphic, clumsy, ambiguous early scripts were as 
restricted as the number of their users. Anyone hoping to discover how 
Sumerians of 3000 B.C. thought and felt is in for a disappointment. 
Instead, the first Sumerian texts are emotionless accounts of palace and 
temple bureaucrats. About 90 percent of the tablets in the earliest known 
Sumerian archives, from the city of Uruk, are clerical records of goods 
paid in, workers given rations, and agricultural products distributed. Only 
later, as Sumerians progressed beyond logograms to phonetic writing, did 
they begin to write prose narratives, such as propaganda and myths. 

Mycenaean Greeks never even reached that propaganda-and-myths 


stage. One-third of all Linear B tablets from the palace of Knossos are 
accountants' records of sheep and wool, while an inordinate proportion 
of writing at the palace of Pylos consists of records of flax. Linear B was 
inherently so ambiguous that it remained restricted to palace accounts, 
whose context and limited word choices made the interpretation clear. 
Not a trace of its use for literature has survived. The Iliad and Odyssey 
were composed and transmitted by nonliterate bards for nonliterate listen- 
ers, and not committed to writing until the development of the Greek 
alphabet hundreds of years later. 

Similarly restricted uses characterize early Egyptian, Mesoamerican, 
and Chinese writing. Early Egyptian hieroglyphs recorded religious and 
state propaganda and bureaucratic accounts. Preserved Maya writing was 
similarly devoted to propaganda, births and accessions and victories of 
kings, and astronomical observations of priests. The oldest preserved Chi- 
nese writing of the late Shang Dynasty consists of religious divination 
about dynastic affairs, incised into so-called oracle bones. A sample Shang 
text: "The king, reading the meaning of the crack [in a bone cracked by 
heating], said: If the child is born on a keng day, it will be extremely 
auspicious.' " 

To us today, it is tempting to ask why societies with early writing sys- 
tems accepted the ambiguities that restricted writing to a few functions 
and a few scribes. But even to pose that question is to illustrate the gap 
between ancient perspectives and our own expectations of mass literacy. 
The intended restricted uses of early writing provided a positive disincen- 
tive for devising less ambiguous writing systems. The kings and priests of 
ancient Sumer wanted writing to be used by professional scribes to record 
numbers of sheep owed in taxes, not by the masses to write poetry and 
hatch plots. As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss put it, ancient writ- 
ing's main function was "to facilitate the enslavement of other human 
beings." Personal uses of writing by nonprofessionals came only much 
later, as writing systems grew simpler and more expressive. 

For instance, with the fall of Mycenaean Greek civilization, around 
1200 B.C., Linear B disappeared, and Greece returned to an age of preliter- 
acy. When writing finally returned to Greece, in the eighth century B.C., 
the new Greek writing, its users, and its uses were very different. The writ- 
ing was no longer an ambiguous syllabary mixed with logograms but an 
alphabet borrowed from the Phoenician consonantal alphabet and 
improved by the Greek invention of vowels. In place of lists of sheep, legi- 


ble only to scribes and read only in palaces, Greek alphabetic writing from 
the moment of its appearance was a vehicle of poetry and humor, to be 
read in private homes. For instance, the first preserved example of Greek 
alphabetic writing, scratched onto an Athenian wine jug of about 740 B . C . , 
is a line of poetry announcing a dancing contest: "Whoever of all dancers 
performs most nimbly will win this vase as a prize." The next example is 
three lines of dactylic hexameter scratched onto a drinking cup: "I am 
Nestor's delicious drinking cup. Whoever drinks from this cup swiftly will 
the desire of fair-crowned Aphrodite seize him." The earliest preserved 
examples of the Etruscan and Roman alphabets are also inscriptions on 
drinking cups and wine containers. Only later did the alphabet's easily 
learned vehicle of private communication become co-opted for public or 
bureaucratic purposes. Thus, the developmental sequence of uses for 
alphabetic writing was the reverse of that for the earlier systems of logo- 
grams and syllabaries. 

THE LIMITED USES and users of early writing suggest why writing 
appeared so late in human evolution. All of the likely or possible indepen- 
dent inventions of writing (in Sumer, Mexico, China, and Egypt), and all 
of the early adaptations of those invented systems (for example, those in 
Crete, Iran, Turkey, the Indus Valley, and the Maya area), involved socially 
stratified societies with complex and centralized political institutions, 
whose necessary relation to food production we shall explore in a later 
chapter. Early writing served the needs of those political institutions (such 
as record keeping and royal propaganda), and the users were full-time 
bureaucrats nourished by stored food surpluses grown by food-producing 
peasants. Writing was never developed or even adopted by hunter-gatherer 
societies, because they lacked both the institutional uses of early writing 
and the social and agricultural mechanisms for generating the food sur- 
pluses required to feed scribes. 

Thus, food production and thousands of years of societal evolution fol- 
lowing its adoption were as essential for the evolution of writing as for 
the evolution of microbes causing human epidemic diseases. Writing arose 
independently only in the Fertile Crescent, Mexico, and probably China 
precisely because those were the first areas where food production emerged 
in their respective hemispheres. Once writing had been invented by those 


few societies, it then spread, by trade and conquest and religion, to other 
societies with similar economies and political organizations. 

While food production was thus a necessary condition for the evolution 
or early adoption of writing, it was not a sufficient condition. At the begin- 
ning of this chapter, I mentioned the failure of some food-producing socie- 
ties with complex political organization to develop or adopt writing before 
modern times. Those cases, initially so puzzling to us moderns accustomed 
to viewing writing as indispensable to a complex society, included one of 
the world's largest empires as of A.D. 1520, the Inca Empire of South 
America. They also included Tonga's maritime proto-empire, the Hawai- 
ian state emerging in the late 18th century, all of the states and chiefdoms 
of subequatorial Africa and sub-Saharan West Africa before the arrival 
of Islam, and the largest native North American societies, those of the 
Mississippi Valley and its tributaries. Why did all those societies fail to 
acquire writing, despite their sharing prerequisites with societies that did 
do so? 

Here we have to remind ourselves that the vast majority of societies 
with writing acquired it by borrowing it from neighbors or by being 
inspired by them to develop it, rather than by independently inventing it 
themselves. The societies without writing that I just mentioned are ones 
that got a later start on food production than did Sumer, Mexico, and 
China. (The only uncertainty in this statement concerns the relative dates 
for the onset of food production in Mexico and in the Andes, the eventual 
Inca realm.) Given enough time, the societies lacking writing might also 
have eventually developed it on their own. Had they been located nearer 
to Sumer, Mexico, and China, they might instead have acquired writing 
or the idea of writing from those centers, just as did India, the Maya, and 
most other societies with writing. But they were too far from the first cen- 
ters of writing to have acquired it before modern times. 

The importance of isolation is most obvious for Hawaii and Tonga, 
both of which were separated by at least 4,000 miles of ocean from the 
nearest societies with writing. The other societies illustrate the important 
point that distance as the crow flies is not an appropriate measure of isola- 
tion for humans. The Andes, West Africa's kingdoms, and the mouth of 
the Mississippi River lay only about 1,200, 1,500, and 700 miles, respec- 
tively, from societies with writing in Mexico, North Africa, and Mexico, 
respectively. These distances are considerably less than the distances the 



alphabet had to travel from its homeland on the eastern shores of the Med- 
iterranean to reach Ireland, Ethiopia, and Southeast Asia within 2,000 
years of its invention. But humans are slowed by ecological and water 
barriers that crows can fry over. The states of North Africa (with writing) 
and West Africa (without writing) were separated from each other by 
Saharan desert unsuitable for agriculture and cities. The deserts of north- 
ern Mexico similarly separated the urban centers of southern Mexico from 
the chiefdoms of the Mississippi Valley. Communication between southern 
Mexico and the Andes required either a sea voyage or else a long chain of 
overland contacts via the narrow, forested, never urbanized Isthmus of 
Darien. Hence the Andes, West Africa, and the Mississippi Valley were 
effectively rather isolated from societies with writing. 

That's not to say that those societies without writing were totally iso- 
lated. West Africa eventually did receive Fertile Crescent domestic animals 
across the Sahara, and later accepted Islamic influence, including Arabic 
writing. Corn diffused from Mexico to the Andes and, more slowly, from 
Mexico to the Mississippi Valley. But we already saw in Chapter 10 that 
the north-south axes and ecological barriers within Africa and the Ameri- 
cas retarded the diffusion of crops and domestic animals. The history of 
writing illustrates strikingly the similar ways in which geography and ecol- 
ogy influenced the spread of human inventions. 



ancient Minoan palace at Phaistos, on the island of Crete, 
chanced upon one of the most remarkable objects in the history of technol- 
ogy. At first glance it seemed unprepossessing: just a small, fiat, unpainted, 
circular disk of hard-baked clay, 6V2 inches in diameter. Closer examina- 
tion showed each side to be covered with writing, resting on a curved line 
that spiraled clockwise in five coils from the disks rim to its center. A total 
of 241 signs or letters was neatly divided by etched vertical lines into 
groups of several signs, possibly constituting words. The writer must have 
planned and executed the disk with care, so as to start writing at the rim 
and fill up all the available space along the spiraling line, yet not run out 
of space on reaching the center (page 240). 

Ever since it was unearthed, the disk has posed a mystery for historians 
of writing. The number of distinct signs (45) suggests a syllabary rather 
than an alphabet, but it is still undeciphered, and the forms of the signs 
are unlike those of any other known writing system. Not another scrap of 
the strange script has turned up in the 89 years since its discovery. Thus, it 
remains unknown whether it represents an indigenous Cretan script or a 
foreign import to Crete. 

For historians of technology, the Phaistos disk is even more baffling; its 


One side of the two-sided Phaistos Disk. 

estimated date of 1700 B.C. makes it by far the earliest printed document 
in the world. Instead of being etched by hand, as were all texts of Crete's 
later Linear A and Linear B scripts, the disk's signs were punched into soft 
clay (subsequently baked hard) by stamps that bore a sign as raised type. 
The printer evidently had a set of at least 45 stamps, one for each sign 
appearing on the disk. Making these stamps must have entailed a great 
deal of work, and they surely weren't manufactured just to print this single 
document. Whoever used them was presumably doing a lot of writing. 
With those stamps, their owner could make copies much more quickly and 
neatly than if he or she had written out each of the script's complicated 
signs at each appearance. 

The Phaistos disk anticipates humanity's next efforts at printing, which 
similarly used cut type or blocks but applied them to paper with ink, not 


• 241 

to clay without ink. However, those next efforts did not appear until 2,500 
years later in China and 3,100 years later in medieval Europe. Why was 
the disk's precocious technology not widely adopted in Crete or elsewhere 
in the ancient Mediterranean? Why was its printing method invented 
around 1700 B.C. in Crete and not at some other time in Mesopotamia, 
Mexico, or any other ancient center of writing? Why did it then take thou- 
sands of years to add the ideas of ink and a press and arrive at a printing 
press? The disk thus constitutes a threatening challenge to historians. If 
inventions are as idiosyncratic and unpredictable as the disk seems to sug- 
gest, then efforts to generalize about the history of technology may be 
doomed from the outset. 

Technology, in the form of weapons and transport, provides the direct 
means by which certain peoples have expanded their realms and con- 
quered other peoples. That makes it the leading cause of history's broadest 
pattern. But why were Eurasians, rather than Native Americans or sub- 
Saharan Africans, the ones to invent firearms, oceangoing ships, and steel 
equipment? The differences extend to most other significant technological 
advances, from printing presses to glass and steam engines. Why were all 
those inventions Eurasian? Why were all New Guineans and Native Aus- 
tralians in A.D. 1800 still using stone tools like ones discarded thousands 
of years ago in Eurasia and most of Africa, even though some of the 
world's richest copper and iron deposits are in New Guinea and Australia, 
respectively? All those facts explain why so many laypeople assume that 
Eurasians are superior to other peoples in inventiveness and intelligence. 

If, on the other hand, no such difference in human neurobiology exists 
to account for continental differences in technological development, what 
does account for them? An alternative view rests on the heroic theory of 
invention. Technological advances seem to come disproportionately from 
a few very rare geniuses, such as Johannes Gutenberg, James Watt, 
Thomas Edison, and the Wright brothers. They were Europeans, or 
descendants of European emigrants to America. So were Archimedes and 
other rare geniuses of ancient times. Could such geniuses have equally well 
been born in Tasmania or Namibia? Does the history of technology 
depend on nothing more than accidents of the birthplaces of a few inven- 

Still another alternative view holds that it is a matter not of individual 
inventiveness but of the receptivity of whole societies to innovation. Some 
societies seem hopelessly conservative, inward looking, and hostile to 


change. That's the impression of many Westerners who have attempted to 
help Third World peoples and ended up discouraged. The people seem 
perfectly intelligent as individuals; the problem seems instead to lie with 
their societies. How else can one explain why the Aborigines of northeast- 
ern Australia failed to adopt bows and arrows, which they saw being used 
by Torres Straits islanders with whom they traded? Might all the societies 
of an entire continent be unreceptive, thereby explaining technology's slow 
pace of development there? In this chapter we shall finally come to grips 
with a central problem of this book: the question of why technology did 
evolve at such different rates on different continents. 

THE STARTING POINT for our discussion is the common view expressed 
in the saying "Necessity is the mother of invention." That is, inventions 
supposedly arise when a society has an unfulfilled need: some technology 
is widely recognized to be unsatisfactory or limiting. Would-be inventors, 
motivated by the prospect of money or fame, perceive the need and try to 
meet it. Some inventor finally comes up with a solution superior to the 
existing, unsatisfactory technology. Society adopts the solution if it is com- 
patible with the society's values and other technologies. 

Quite a few inventions do conform to this commonsense view of neces- 
sity as invention's mother. In 1942, in the middle of World War II, the U.S. 
government set up the Manhattan Project with the explicit goal of 
inventing the technology required to build an atomic bomb before Nazi 
Germany could do so. That project succeeded in three years, at a cost of 
$2 billion (equivalent to over $20 billion today). Other instances are Eli 
Whitney's 1794 invention of his cotton gin to replace laborious hand 
cleaning of cotton grown in the U.S. South, and James Watt's 1769 inven- 
tion of his steam engine to solve the problem of pumping water out of 
British coal mines. 

These familiar examples deceive us into assuming that other major 
inventions were also responses to perceived needs. In fact, many or most 
inventions were developed by people driven by curiosity or by a love of 
tinkering, in the absence of any initial demand for the product they had in 
mind. Once a device had been invented, the inventor then had to find an 
application for it. Only after it had been in use for a considerable time did 
consumers come to feel that they "needed" it. Still other devices, invented 
to serve one purpose, eventually found most of their use for other, unantic- 


2 4 3 

ipated purposes. It may come as a surprise to learn that these inventions 
in search of a use include most of the major technological breakthroughs 
of modern times, ranging from the airplane and automobile, through the 
internal combustion engine and electric light bulb, to the phonograph and 
transistor. Thus, invention is often the mother of necessity, rather than 
vice versa. 

A good example is the history of Thomas Edison's phonograph, the 
most original invention of the greatest inventor of modern times. When 
Edison built his first phonograph in 1877, he published an article propos- 
ing ten uses to which his invention might be put. They included preserving 
the last words of dying people, recording books for blind people to hear, 
announcing clock time, and teaching spelling. Reproduction of music was 
not high on Edison's list of priorities. A few years later Edison told his 
assistant that his invention had no commercial value. Within another few 
years he changed his mind and did enter business to sell phonographs — 
but for use as office dictating machines. When other entrepreneurs created 
jukeboxes by arranging for a phonograph to play popular music at the 
drop of a coin, Edison objected to this debasement, which apparently 
detracted from serious office use of his invention. Only after about 20 
years did Edison reluctantly concede that the main use of his phonograph 
was to record and play music. 

The motor vehicle is another invention whose uses seem obvious today. 
However, it was not invented in response to any demand. When Nikolaus 
Otto built his first gas engine, in 1866, horses had been supplying people's 
land transportation needs for nearly 6,000 years, supplemented increas- 
ingly by steam-powered railroads for several decades. There was no crisis 
in the availability of horses, no dissatisfaction with railroads. 

Because Otto's engine was weak, heavy, and seven feet tall, it did not 
recommend itself over horses. Not until 1885 did engines improve to the 
point that Gottfried Daimler got around to installing one on a bicycle to 
create the first motorcycle; he waited until 1896 to build the first truck. 

In 1905, motor vehicles were still expensive, unreliable toys for the rich. 
Public contentment with horses and railroads remained high until World 
War I, when the military concluded that it really did need trucks. Intensive 
postwar lobbying by truck manufacturers and armies finally convinced the 
public of its own needs and enabled trucks to begin to supplant horse- 
drawn wagons in industrialized countries. Even in the largest American 
cities, the changeover took 50 years. 


Inventors often have to persist at their tinkering for a long time in the 
absence of public demand, because early models perform too poorly to be 
useful. The first cameras, typewriters, and television sets were as awful as 
Otto's seven-foot-tall gas engine. That makes it difficult for an inventor to 
foresee whether his or her awful prototype might eventually find a use and 
thus warrant more time and expense to develop it. Each year, the United 
States issues about 70,000 patents, only a few of which ultimately reach 
the stage of commercial production. For each great invention that ulti- 
mately found a use, there are countless others that did not. Even inventions 
that meet the need for which they were initially designed may later prove 
more valuable at meeting unforeseen needs. While James Watt designed 
his steam engine to pump water from mines, it soon was supplying power 
to cotton mills, then (with much greater profit) propelling locomotives and 

THUS, THECOMMONSENSE view of invention that served as our start- 
ing point reverses the usual roles of invention and need. It also overstates 
the importance of rare geniuses, such as Watt and Edison. That "heroic 
theory of invention," as it is termed, is encouraged by patent law, because 
an applicant for a patent must prove the novelty of the invention submit- 
ted. Inventors thereby have a financial incentive to denigrate or ignore 
previous work. From a patent lawyer's perspective, the ideal invention is 
one that arises without any precursors, like Athene springing fully formed 
from the forehead of Zeus. 

In reality, even for the most famous and apparently decisive modern 
inventions, neglected precursors lurked behind the bald claim "X invented 
Y." For instance, we are regularly told, "James Watt invented the steam 
engine in 1769," supposedly inspired by watching steam rise from a tea- 
kettle's spout. Unfortunately for this splendid fiction, Watt actually got the 
idea for his particular steam engine while repairing a model of Thomas 
Newcomen's steam engine, which Newcomen had invented 57 years ear- 
lier and of which over a hundred had been manufactured in England by 
the time of Watt's repair work. Newcomen's engine, in turn, followed the 
steam engine that the Englishman Thomas Savery patented in 1698, which 
followed the steam engine that the Frenchman Denis Papin designed (but 
did not build) around 1680, which in turn had precursors in the ideas of 


the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens and others. All this is not to deny 
that Watt greatly improved Newcomen's engine (by incorporating a sepa- 
rate steam condenser and a double-acting cylinder), just as Newcomen had 
greatly improved Savery's. 

Similar histories can be related for all modern inventions that are ade- 
quately documented. The hero customarily credited with the invention fol- 
lowed previous inventors who had had similar aims and had already 
produced designs, working models, or (as in the case of the Newcomen 
steam engine) commercially successful models. Edison's famous "inven- 
tion" of the incandescent light bulb on the night of October 21, 1879, 
improved on many other incandescent light bulbs patented by other inven- 
tors between 1841 and 1878. Similarly, the Wright brothers' manned pow- 
ered airplane was preceded by the manned unpowered gliders of Otto 
Lilienthal and the unmanned powered airplane of Samuel Langley; Samuel 
Morse's telegraph was preceded by those of Joseph Henry, William Cooke, 
and Charles Wheatstone; and Eli Whitney's gin for cleaning short-staple 
(inland) cotton extended gins that had been cleaning long-staple (Sea 
Island) cotton for thousands of years. 

All this is not to deny that Watt, Edison, the Wright brothers, Morse, 
and Whitney made big improvements and thereby increased or inaugu- 
rated commercial success. The form of the invention eventually adopted 
might have been somewhat different without the recognized inventor's 
contribution. But the question for our purposes is whether the broad pat- 
tern of world history would have been altered significantly if some genius 
inventor had not been born at a particular place and time. The answer is 
clear: there has never been any such person. All recognized famous inven- 
tors had capable predecessors and successors and made their improve- 
ments at a time when society was capable of using their product. As we 
shall see, the tragedy of the hero who perfected the stamps used for the 
Phaistos disk was that he or she devised something that the society of the 
time could not exploit on a large scale. 

EXAMPLES so far have been drawn from modern technologies, 
because their histories are well known. My two main conclusions are that 
technology develops cumulatively, rather than in isolated heroic acts, and 
that it finds most of its uses after it has been invented, rather than being 


invented to meet a foreseen need. These conclusions surely apply with 
much greater force to the undocumented history of ancient technology. 
When Ice Age hunter-gatherers noticed burned sand and limestone resi- 
dues in their hearths, it was impossible for them to foresee the long, seren- 
dipitous accumulation of discoveries that would lead to the first Roman 
glass windows (around A.D. 1), by way of the first objects with surface 
glazes (around 4000 B.C.), the first free-standing glass objects of Egypt and 
Mesopotamia (around 2500 B.C.), and the first glass vessels (around 1500 


We know nothing about how those earliest known surface glazes them- 
selves were developed. Nevertheless, we can infer the methods of prehis- 
toric invention by watching technologically "primitive" people today, such 
as the New Guineans with whom I work. I already mentioned their knowl- 
edge of hundreds of local plant and animal species and each species' edibil- 
ity, medical value, and other uses. New Guineans told me similarly about 
dozens of rock types in their environment and each type's hardness, color, 
behavior when struck or flaked, and uses. All of that knowledge is 
acquired by observation and by trial and error. I see that process of 
"invention" going on whenever I take New Guineans to work with me in 
an area away from their homes. They constantly pick up unfamiliar things 
in the forest, tinker with them, and occasionally find them useful enough 
to bring home. I see the same process when I am abandoning a campsite, 
and local people come to scavenge what is left. They play with my dis- 
carded objects and try to figure out whether they might be useful in New 
Guinea society. Discarded tin cans are easy: they end up reused as contain- 
ers. Other objects are tested for purposes very different from the one for 
which they were manufactured. How would that yellow number 2 pencil 
look as an ornament, inserted through a pierced ear-lobe or nasal septum? 
Is that piece of broken glass sufficiently sharp and strong to be useful as a 
knife? Eureka! 

The raw substances available to ancient peoples were natural materials 
such as stone, wood, bone, skins, fiber, clay, sand, limestone, and minerals, 
all existing in great variety. From those materials, people gradually learned 
to work particular types of stone, wood, and bone into tools; to convert 
particular clays into pottery and bricks; to convert certain mixtures of 
sand, limestone, and other "dirt" into glass; and to work available pure 
soft metals such as copper and gold, then to extract metals from ores, and 
finally to work hard metals such as bronze and iron. 


2 4 7 

A good illustration of the histories of trial and error involved is fur- 
nished by the development of gunpowder and gasoline from raw materials. 
Combustible natural products inevitably make themselves noticed, as 
when a resinous log explodes in a campfire. By 2000 B.C., Mesopotamians 
were extracting tons of petroleum by heating rock asphalt. Ancient Greeks 
discovered the uses of various mixtures of petroleum, pitch, resins, sulfur, 
and quicklime as incendiary weapons, delivered by catapults, arrows, 
firebombs, and ships. The expertise at distillation that medieval Islamic 
alchemists developed to produce alcohols and perfumes also let them dis- 
till petroleum into fractions, some of which proved to be even more power- 
ful incendiaries. Delivered in grenades, rockets, and torpedoes, those 
incendiaries played a key role in Islam's eventual defeat of the Crusaders. 
By then, the Chinese had observed that a particular mixture of sulfur, 
charcoal, and saltpeter, which became known as gunpowder, was espe- 
cially explosive. An Islamic chemical treatise of about A.D. 1 100 describes 
seven gunpowder recipes, while a treatise from A.D. 1280 gives more than 
70 recipes that had proved suitable for diverse purposes (one for rockets, 
another for cannons). 

As for postmedieval petroleum distillation, 19th-century chemists 
found the middle distillate fraction useful as fuel for oil lamps. The chem- 
ists discarded the most volatile fraction (gasoline) as an unfortunate waste 
product — until it was found to be an ideal fuel for internal-combustion 
engines. Who today remembers that gasoline, the fuel of modern civiliza- 
tion, originated as yet another invention in search of a use? 

ONCE AN INVENTOR has discovered a use for a new technology, the 
next step is to persuade society to adopt it. Merely having a bigger, faster, 
more powerful device for doing something is no guarantee of ready accep- 
tance. Innumerable such technologies were either not adopted at all or 
adopted only after prolonged resistance. Notorious examples include the 
U.S. Congress's rejection of funds to develop a supersonic transport in 
1971, the world's continued rejection of an efficiently designed typewriter 
keyboard, and Britain's long reluctance to adopt electric lighting. What is 
it that promotes an invention's acceptance by a society? 

Let's begin by comparing the acceptability of different inventions within 
the same society. It turns out that at least four factors influence acceptance. 

The first and most obvious factor is relative economic advantage com- 


pared with existing technology. While wheels are very useful in modern 
industrial societies, that has not been so in some other societies. Ancient 
Native Mexicans invented wheeled vehicles with axles for use as toys, but 
not for transport. That seems incredible to us, until we reflect that ancient 
Mexicans lacked domestic animals to hitch to their wheeled vehicles, 
which therefore offered no advantage over human porters. 

A second consideration is social value and prestige, which can override 
economic benefit (or lack thereof). Millions of people today buy designer 
jeans for double the price of equally durable generic jeans — because the 
social cachet of the designer label counts for more than the extra cost. 
Similarly, Japan continues to use its horrendously cumbersome kanji writ- 
ing system in preference to efficient alphabets or Japan's own efficient kana 
syllabary — because the prestige attached to kanji is so great. 

Still another factor is compatibility with vested interests. This book, like 
probably every other typed document you have ever read, was typed with 
a QWERTY keyboard, named for the left-most six letters in its upper row. 
Unbelievable as it may now sound, that keyboard layout was designed in 
1873 as a feat of anti-engineering. It employs a whole series of perverse 
tricks designed to force typists to type as slowly as possible, such as scatter- 
ing the commonest letters over all keyboard rows and concentrating them 
on the left side (where right-handed people have to use their weaker hand). 
The reason behind all of those seemingly counterproductive features is that 
the typewriters of 1873 jammed if adjacent keys were struck in quick suc- 
cession, so that manufacturers had to slow down typists. When improve- 
ments in typewriters eliminated the problem of jamming, trials in 1932 
with an efficiently laid-out keyboard showed that it would let us double 
our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 percent. But 
QWERTY keyboards were solidly entrenched by then. The vested interests 
of hundreds of millions of QWERTY typists, typing teachers, typewriter 
and computer salespeople, and manufacturers have crushed all moves 
toward keyboard efficiency for over 60-years. 

While the story of the QWERTY keyboard may sound funny, many 
similar cases have involved much heavier economic consequences. Why 
does Japan now dominate the world market for transistorized electronic 
consumer products, to a degree that damages the United States's balance 
of payments with Japan, even though transistors were invented and pat- 
ented in the United States? Because Sony bought transistor licensing rights 
from Western Electric at a time when the American electronics consumer 


2 4 9 

industry was churning out vacuum tube models and reluctant to compete 
with its own products. Why were British cities still using gas street lighting 
into the 1920s, long after U.S. and German cities had converted to electric 
street lighting? Because British municipal governments had invested heav- 
ily in gas lighting and placed regulatory obstacles in the way of the compet- 
ing electric light companies. 

The remaining consideration affecting acceptance of new technologies 
is the ease with which their advantages can be observed. In A.D. 1340, 
when firearms had not yet reached most of Europe, England's earl of 
Derby and earl of Salisbury happened to be present in Spain at the battle 
of Tarifa, where Arabs used cannons against the Spaniards. Impressed by 
what they saw, the earls introduced cannons to the English army, which 
adopted them enthusiastically and already used them against French sol- 
diers at the battle of Crecy six years later. 

THUS, WHEELS, DESIGNER jeans, and QWERTY keyboards illustrate 
the varied reasons why the same society is not equally receptive to all 
inventions. Conversely, the same invention's reception also varies greatly 
among contemporary societies. We are all familiar with the supposed gen- 
eralization that rural Third World societies are less receptive to innovation 
than are Westernized industrial societies. Even within the industrialized 
world, some areas are much more receptive than others. Such differences, 
if they existed on a continental scale, might explain why technology devel- 
oped faster on some continents than on others. For instance, if all Aborigi- 
nal Australian societies were for some reason uniformly resistant to 
change, that might account for their continued use of stone tools after 
metal tools had appeared on every other continent. How do differences in 
receptivity among societies arise? 

A laundry list of at least 14 explanatory factors has been proposed by 
historians of technology. One is long life expectancy, which in principle 
should give prospective inventors the years necessary to accumulate tech- 
nical knowledge, as well as the patience and security to embark on long 
development programs yielding delayed rewards. Hence the greatly 
increased life expectancy brought by modern medicine may have contrib- 
uted to the recently accelerating pace of invention. 

The next five factors involve economics or the organization of society: 
(1) The availability of cheap slave labor in classical times supposedly dis- 


couraged innovation then, whereas high wages or labor scarcity now stim- 
ulate the search for technological solutions. For example, the prospect of 
changed immigration policies that would cut off the supply of cheap Mexi- 
can seasonal labor to Californian farms was the immediate incentive for 
the development of a machine-harvestable variety of tomatoes in Califor- 
nia. (2) Patents and other property laws, protecting ownership rights of 
inventors, reward innovation in the modern West, while the lack of such 
protection discourages it in modern China. (3) Modern industrial societies 
provide extensive opportunities for technical training, as medieval Islam 
did and modern Zaire does not. (4) Modern capitalism is, and the ancient 
Roman economy was not, organized in a way that made it potentially 
rewarding to invest capital in technological development. (5) The strong 
individualism of U.S. society allows successful inventors to keep earnings 
for themselves, whereas strong family ties in New Guinea ensure that 
someone who begins to earn money will be joined by a dozen relatives 
expecting to move in and be fed and supported. 

Another four suggested explanations are ideological, rather than eco- 
nomic or organizational: (1) Risk-taking behavior, essential for efforts at 
innovation, is more widespread in some societies than in others. (2) The 
scientific outlook is a unique feature of post-Renaissance European society 
that has contributed heavily to its modern technological preeminence. (3) 
Tolerance of diverse views and of heretics fosters innovation, whereas a 
strongly traditional outlook (as in China's emphasis on ancient Chinese 
classics) stifles it. (4) Religions vary greatly in their relation to technologi- 
cal innovation: some branches of Judaism and Christianity are claimed to 
be especially compatible with it, while some branches of Islam, Hinduism, 
and Brahmanism may be especially incompatible with it. 

All ten of these hypotheses are plausible. But none of them has any 
necessary association with geography. If patent rights, capitalism, and cer- 
tain religions do promote technology, what selected for those factors in 
postmedieval Europe but not in contemporary China or India? 

At least the direction in which those ten factors influence technology 
seems clear. The remaining four proposed factors — war, centralized gov- 
ernment, climate, and resource abundance — appear to act inconsistently: 
sometimes they stimulate technology, sometimes they inhibit it. (1) 
Throughout history, war has often been a leading stimulant of technologi- 
cal innovation. For instance, the enormous investments made in nuclear 
weapons during World War II and in airplanes and trucks during World 



War I launched whole new fields of technology. But wars can also deal 
devastating setbacks to technological development. (2) Strong centralized 
government boosted technology in late- 19th-century Germany and Japan, 
and crashed it in China after A.D. 1500. (3) Many northern Europeans 
assume that technology thrives in a rigorous climate where survival is 
impossible without technology, and withers in a benign climate where 
clothing is unnecessary and bananas supposedly fall off the trees. An oppo- 
site view is that benign environments leave people free from the constant 
straggle for existence, free to devote themselves to innovation. (4) There 
has also been debate over whether technology is stimulated by abundance 
or by scarcity of environmental resources. Abundant resources might stim- 
ulate the development of inventions utilizing those resources, such as 
water mill technology in rainy northern Europe, with its many rivers — but 
why didn't water mill technology progress more rapidly in even rainier 
New Guinea? The destruction of Britain's forests has been suggested as the 
reason behind its early lead in developing coal technology, but why didn't 
deforestation have the same effect in China? 

This discussion does not exhaust the list of reasons proposed to explain 
why societies differ in their receptivity to new technology. Worse yet, all 
of these proximate explanations bypass the question of the ultimate fac- 
tors behind them. This may seem like a discouraging setback in our 
attempt to understand the course of history, since technology has undoubt- 
edly been one of history's strongest forces. However, I shall now argue 
that the diversity of independent factors behind technological innovation 
actually makes it easier, not harder, to understand history's broad pattern. 

for the purposes of this book, the key question about the laundry 
list is whether such factors differed systematically from continent to conti- 
nent and thereby led to continental differences in technological develop- 
ment. Most laypeople and many historians assume, expressly or tacitly, 
that the answer is yes. For example, it is widely believed that Australian 
Aborigines as a group shared ideological characteristics contributing to 
their technological backwardness: they were (or are) supposedly conserva- 
tive, living in an imagined past Dreamtime of the world's creation, and not 
focused on practical ways to improve the present. A leading historian of 
Africa characterized Africans as inward looking and lacking Europeans' 
drive for expansion. 


But all such claims are based on pure speculation. There has never been 
a study of many societies under similar socioeconomic conditions on each 
of two continents, demonstrating systematic ideological differences 
between the two continents' peoples. The usual reasoning is instead circu- 
lar: because technological differences exist, the existence of corresponding 
ideological differences is inferred. 

In reality, I regularly observe in New Guinea that native societies there 
differ greatly from each other in their prevalent outlooks. Just like indus- 
trialized Europe and America, traditional New Guinea has conservative 
societies that resist new ways, living side by side with innovative societies 
that selectively adopt new ways. The result, with the arrival of Western 
technology, is that the more entrepreneurial societies are now exploiting 
Western technology to overwhelm their conservative neighbors. 

For example, when Europeans first reached the highlands of eastern 
New Guinea, in the 1930s, they "discovered" dozens of previously uncon-> 
tacted Stone Age tribes, of which the Chimbu tribe proved especially 
aggressive in adopting Western technology. When Chimbus saw white set- 
tlers planting coffee, they began growing coffee themselves as a cash crop. 
In 1964 I met a 50-year-old Chimbu man, unable to read, wearing a tradi- 
tional grass skirt, and born into a society still using stone tools, who had 
become rich by growing coffee, used his profits to buy a sawmill for 
$100,000 cash, and bought a fleet of trucks to transport his coffee and 
timber to market. In contrast, a neighboring highland people with whom 
I worked for eight years, the Daribi, are especially conservative and unin- 
terested in new technology. When the first helicopter landed in the Daribi 
area, they briefly looked at it and just went back to what they had been 
doing; the Chimbus would have been bargaining to charter it. As a result, 
Chimbus are now moving into the Daribi area, taking it over for planta- 
tions, and reducing the Daribi to working for them. 

On every other continent as well, certain native societies have proved 
very receptive, adopted foreign ways and technology selectively, and inte- 
grated them successfully into their own society. In Nigeria the Ibo people 
became the local entrepreneurial equivalent of New Guinea's Chimbus. 
Today the most numerous Native American tribe in the United States is 
the Navajo, who on European arrival were just one of several hundred 
tribes. But the Navajo proved especially resilient and able to deal selec- 
tively with innovation. They incorporated Western dyes into their weav- 


ing, became silversmiths and ranchers, and now drive trucks while 
continuing to live in traditional dwellings. 

Among the supposedly conservative Aboriginal Australians as well, 
there are receptive societies along with conservative ones. At the one 
extreme, the Tasmanians continued to use stone tools superseded tens of 
thousands of years earlier in Europe and replaced in most of mainland 
Australia too. At the opposite extreme, some aboriginal fishing groups of 
southeastern Australia devised elaborate technologies for managing fish 
populations, including the construction of canals, weirs, and standing 

Thus, the development and reception of inventions vary enormously 
from society to society on the same continent. They also vary over time 
within the same society. Nowadays, Islamic societies in the Middle East are 
relatively conservative and not at the forefront of technology. But medieval 
Islam in the same region was technologically advanced and open to inno- 
vation. It achieved far higher literacy rates than contemporary Europe; it 
assimilated the legacy of classical Greek civilization to such a degree that 
many classical Greek books are now known to us only through Arabic 
copies; it invented or elaborated windmills, tidal mills, trigonometry, and 
lateen sails; it made major advances in metallurgy, mechanical and chemi- 
cal engineering, and irrigation methods; and it adopted paper and gun- 
powder from China and transmitted them to Europe. In the Middle Ages 
the flow of technology was overwhelmingly from Islam to Europe, rather 
than from Europe to Islam as it is today. Only after around A.D. 1500 did 
the net direction of flow begin to reverse. 

Innovation in China too fluctuated markedly with time. Until around 
A.D. 1450, China was technologically much more innovative and 
advanced than Europe, even more so than medieval Islam. The long list of 
Chinese inventions includes canal lock gates, cast iron, deep drilling, effi- 
cient animal harnesses, gunpowder, kites, magnetic compasses, movable 
type, paper, porcelain, printing (except for the Phaistos disk), sternpost 
rudders, and wheelbarrows. China then ceased to be innovative for rea- 
sons about which we shall speculate in the Epilogue. Conversely, we think 
of western Europe and its derived North American societies as leading 
the modern world in technological innovation, but technology was less 
advanced in western Europe than in any other "civilized" area of the Old 
World until the late Middle Ages. 


Thus, it is untrue that there are continents whose societies have tended 
to be innovative and continents whose societies have tended to be conser- 
vative. On any continent, at any given time, there are innovative societies 
and also conservative ones. In addition, receptivity to innovation fluctu- 
ates in time within the same region. 

On reflection, these conclusions are precisely what one would expect 
if a society's innovativeness is determined by many independent factors. 
Without a detailed knowledge of all of those factors, innovativeness 
becomes unpredictable. Hence social scientists continue to debate the spe- 
cific reasons why receptivity changed in Islam, China, and Europe, and 
why the Chimbus, Ibos, and Navajo were more receptive to new technol- 
ogy than were their neighbors. To the student of broad historical patterns, 
though, it makes no difference what the specific reasons were in each of 
those cases. The myriad factors affecting innovativeness make the histori- 
an's task paradoxically easier, by converting societal variation in innova- 
tiveness into essentially a random variable. That means that, over a large 
enough area (such as a whole continent) at any particular time, some pro- 
portion of societies is likely to be innovative. 

WHERE DO INNOVATIONS actually come from? For all societies except 
the few past ones that were completely isolated, much or most new tech- 
nology is not invented locally but is instead borrowed from other societies. 
The relative importance of local invention and of borrowing depends 
mainly on two factors: the ease of invention of the particular technology, 
and the proximity of the particular society to other societies. 

Some inventions arose straightforwardly from a handling of natural 
raw materials. Such inventions developed on many independent occasions 
in world history, at different places and times. One example, which we 
have already considered at length, is plant domestication, with at least 
nine independent origins. Another is pottery, which may have arisen from 
observations of the behavior of clay, a very widespread natural material, 
when dried or heated. Pottery appeared in Japan around 14,000 years ago, 
in the Fertile Crescent and China by around 10,000 years ago, and in 
Amazonia, Africa's Sahel zone, the U.S. Southeast, and Mexico thereafter. 

An example of a much more difficult invention is writing, which does 
not suggest itself by observation of any natural material. As we saw in 
Chapter 12, it had only a few independent origins, and the alphabet arose 


apparently only once in world history. Other difficult inventions include 
the water wheel, rotary quern, tooth gearing, magnetic compass, windmill, 
and camera obscura, all of which were invented only once or twice in the 
Old World and never in the New World. 

Such complex inventions were usually acquired by borrowing, because 
they spread more rapidly than they could be independently invented 
locally. A clear example is the wheel, which is first attested around 3400 
B.C. near the Black Sea, and then turns up within the next few centuries 
over much of Europe and Asia. All those early Old World wheels are of a 
peculiar design: a solid wooden circle constructed of three planks fastened 
together, rather than a rim with spokes. In contrast, the sole wheels of 
Native American societies (depicted on Mexican ceramic vessels) consisted 
of a single piece, suggesting a second independent invention of the wheel — 
as one would expect from other evidence for the isolation of New World 
from Old World civilizations. 

No one thinks that that same peculiar Old World wheel design 
appeared repeatedly by chance at many separate sites of the Old World 
within a few centuries of each other, after 7 million years of wheelless 
human history. Instead, the utility of the wheel surely caused it to diffuse 
rapidly east and west over the Old World from its sole site of invention. 
Other examples of complex technologies that diffused east and west in the 
ancient Old World, from a single West Asian source, include door locks, 
pulleys, rotary querns, windmills — and the alphabet. A New World exam- 
ple of technological diffusion is metallurgy, which spread from the Andes 
via Panama to Mesoamerica. 

When a widely useful invention does crop up in one society, it then 
tends to spread in either of two ways. One way is that other societies see 
or learn of the invention, are receptive to it, and adopt it. The second is 
that societies lacking the invention find themselves at a disadvantage vis- 
a-vis the inventing society, and they become overwhelmed and replaced if 
the disadvantage is sufficiently great. A simple example is the spread of 
muskets among New Zealand's Maori tribes. One tribe, the Ngapuhi, 
adopted muskets from European traders around 1818. Over the course of 
the next 15 years, New Zealand was convulsed by the so-called Musket 
Wars, as musketless tribes either acquired muskets or were subjugated by 
tribes already armed with them. The outcome was that musket technology 
had spread throughout the whole of New Zealand by 1833: all surviving 
Maori tribes now had muskets. 


When societies do adopt a new technology from the society that 
invented it, the diffusion may occur in many different contexts. They 
include peaceful trade (as in the spread of transistors from the United 
States to Japan in 1954), espionage (the smuggling of silkworms from 
Southeast Asia to the Mideast in A.D. 552), emigration (the spread of 
French glass and clothing manufacturing techniques over Europe by the 
200,000 Huguenots expelled from France in 1685), and war. A crucial 
case of the last was the transfer of Chinese papermaking techniques to 
Islam, made possible when an Arab army defeated a Chinese army at the 
battle ofTalas River in Central Asia in A.D. 751, found some papermakers 
among the prisoners of war, and brought them to Samarkand to set up 
paper manufacture. 

In Chapter 12 we saw that cultural diffusion can involve either detailed 
"blueprints" or just vague ideas stimulating a reinvention of details. While 
Chapter 12 illustrated those alternatives for the spread of writing, they 
also apply to the diffusion of technology. The preceding paragraph gave 
examples of blueprint copying, whereas the transfer of Chinese porcelain 
technology to Europe provides an instance of long-drawn-out idea diffu- 
sion. Porcelain, a fine-grained translucent pottery, was invented in China 
around the 7th century A.D. When it began to reach Europe by the Silk 
Road in the 14th century (with no information about how it was manufac- 
tured), it was much admired, and many unsuccessful attempts were made 
to imitate it. Not until 1707 did the German alchemist Johann Bottger, 
after lengthy experiments with processes and with mixing various minerals 
and clays together, hit upon the solution and establish the now famous 
Meissen porcelain works. More or less independent later experiments in 
France and England led to Sevres, Wedgwood, and Spode porcelains. 
Thus, European potters had to reinvent Chinese manufacturing methods 
for themselves, but they were stimulated to do so by having models of the 
desired product before them. 

DEPENDING ON THEIR geographic location, societies differ in how 
readily they can receive technology by diffusion from other societies. The 
most isolated people on Earth in recent history were the Aboriginal Tasma- 
nians, living without oceangoing watercraft on an island 100 miles from 
Australia, itself the most isolated continent. The Tasmanians had no con- 
tact with other societies for 10,000 years and acquired no new technology 


other than what they invented themselves. Australians and New Guineans, 
separated from the Asian mainland by the Indonesian island chain, 
received only a trickle of inventions from Asia. The societies most accessi- 
ble to receiving inventions by diffusion were those embedded in the major 
continents. In these societies technology developed most rapidly, because 
they accumulated not only their own inventions but also those of other 
societies. For example, medieval Islam, centrally located in Eurasia, 
acquired inventions from India and China and inherited ancient Greek 

The importance of diffusion, and of geographic location in making it 
possible, is strikingly illustrated by some otherwise incomprehensible cases 
of societies that abandoned powerful technologies. We tend to assume that 
useful technologies, once acquired, inevitably persist until superseded by 
better ones. In reality, technologies must be not only acquired but also 
maintained, and that too depends on many unpredictable factors. Any 
society goes through social movements or fads, in which economically use- 
less things become valued or useful things devalued temporarily. Nowa- 
days, when almost all societies on Earth are connected to each other, we 
cannot imagine a fad's going so far that an important technology would 
actually be discarded. A society that temporarily turned against a powerful 
technology would continue to see it being used by neighboring societies 
and would have the opportunity to reacquire it by diffusion (or would be 
conquered by neighbors if it failed to do so). But such fads can persist in 
isolated societies. 

A famous example involves Japan's abandonment of guns. Firearms 
reached Japan in A.D. 1543, when two Portuguese adventurers armed with 
harquebuses (primitive guns) arrived on a Chinese cargo ship. The Japa- 
nese were so impressed by the new weapon that they commenced indige- 
nous gun production, greatly improved gun technology, and by A.D. 1600 
owned more and better guns than any other country in the world. 

But there were also factors working against the acceptance of firearms 
in Japan. The country had a numerous warrior class, the samurai, for 
whom swords rated as class symbols and works of art (and as means for 
subjugating the lower classes). Japanese warfare had previously involved 
single combats between samurai swordsmen, who stood in the open, made 
ritual speeches, and then took pride in fighting gracefully. Such behavior 
became lethal in the presence of peasant soldiers ungracefully blasting 
away with guns. In addition, guns were a foreign invention and grew to 


be despised, as did other things foreign in Japan after 1600. The samurai- 
controlled government began by restricting gun production to a few cities, 
then introduced a requirement of a government license for producing a 
gun, then issued licenses only for guns produced for the government, and 
finally reduced government orders for guns, until Japan was almost with- 
out functional guns again. 

Contemporary European rulers also included some who despised guns 
and tried to restrict their availability. But such measures never got far in 
Europe, where any country that temporarily swore off firearms would be 
promptly overrun by gun-toting neighboring countries. Only because 
Japan was a populous, isolated island could it get away with its rejection 
of the powerful new military technology. Its safety in isolation came to an 
end in 1853, when the visit of Commodore Perry's U.S. fleet bristling with 
cannons convinced Japan of its need to resume gun manufacture. 

That rejection and China's abandonment of oceangoing ships (as well as 
of mechanical clocks and water-driven spinning machines) are well-known 
historical instances of technological reversals in isolated or semi-isolated 
societies. Other such reversals occurred in prehistoric times. The extreme 
case is that of Aboriginal Tasmanians, who abandoned even bone tools 
and fishing to become the society with the simplest technology in the mod- 
ern world (Chapter 15). Aboriginal Australians may have adopted and 
then abandoned bows and arrows. Torres Islanders abandoned canoes, 
while Gaua Islanders abandoned and then readopted them. Pottery was 
abandoned throughout Polynesia. Most Polynesians and many Melane- 
sians abandoned the use of bows and arrows in war. Polar Eskimos lost 
the bow and arrow and the kayak, while Dorset Eskimos lost the bow and 
arrow, bow drill, and dogs. 

These examples, at first so bizarre to us, illustrate well the roles of geog- 
raphy and of diffusion in the history of technology. Without diffusion, 
fewer technologies are acquired, and more existing technologies are lost. 

BECAUSE TECHNOLOGY BEGETS more technology, the importance of 
an invention's diffusion potentially exceeds the importance of the original 
invention. Technology's history exemplifies what is termed an autocata-i 
lytic process: that is, one that speeds up at a rate that increases with time, 
because the process catalyzes itself. The explosion of technology since the 
Industrial Revolution impresses us today, but the medieval explosion was 


equally impressive compared with that of the Bronze Age, which in turn 
dwarfed that of the Upper Paleolithic. 

One reason why technology tends to catalyze itself is that advances 
depend upon previous mastery of simpler problems. For example, Stone 
Age farmers did not proceed directly to extracting and working iron, 
which requires high-temperature furnaces. Instead, iron ore metallurgy 
grew out of thousands of years of human experience with natural outcrops 
of pure metals soft enough to be hammered into shape without heat (cop- 
per and gold). It also grew out of thousands of years of development of 
simple furnaces to make pottery, and then to extract copper ores and work 
copper alloys (bronzes) that do not require as high temperatures as does 
iron. In both the Fertile Crescent and China, iron objects became common 
only after about 2,000 years of experience of bronze metallurgy. New 
World societies had just begun making bronze artifacts and had not yet 
started making iron ones at the time when the arrival of Europeans trun- 
cated the New World's independent trajectory. 

The other main reason for autocatalysis is that new technologies and 
materials make it possible to generate still other new technologies by 
recombination. For instance, why did printing spread explosively in medi- 
eval Europe after Gutenberg printed his Bible in A.D. 1455, but not after 
that unknown printer printed the Phaistos disk in 1700 B.C.? The explana- 
tion is partly that medieval European printers were able to combine six 
technological advances, most of which were unavailable to the maker of 
the Phaistos disk. Of those advances — in paper, movable type, metallurgy, 
presses, inks, and scripts — paper and the idea of movable type reached 
Europe from China. Gutenberg's development of typecasting from metal 
dies, to overcome the potentially fatal problem of nonuniform type size, 
depended on many metallurgical developments: steel for letter punches, 
brass or bronze alloys (later replaced by steel) for dies, lead for molds, and 
a tin-zinc-lead alloy for type. Gutenberg's press was derived from screw 
presses in use for making wine and olive oil, while his ink was an oil-based 
improvement on existing inks. The alphabetic scripts that medieval Europe 
inherited from three millennia of alphabet development lent themselves to 
printing with movable type, because only a few dozen letter forms had to 
be cast, as opposed to the thousands of signs required for Chinese writing. 

In all six respects, the maker of the Phaistos disk had access to much 
less powerful technologies to combine into a printing system than did 
Gutenberg. The disk's writing medium was clay, which is much bulkier 


and heavier than paper. The metallurgical skills, inks, and presses of 1700 
B.C. Crete were more primitive than those of A.D. 1455 Germany, so the 
disk had to be punched by hand rather than by cast movable type locked 
into a metal frame, inked, and pressed. The disk's script was a syllabary 
with more signs, of more complex form, than the Roman alphabet used by 
Gutenberg. As a result, the Phaistos disk's printing technology was much 
clumsier, and offered fewer advantages over writing by hand, than Guten- 
berg's printing press. In addition to all those technological drawbacks, the 
Phaistos disk was printed at a time when knowledge of writing was con- 
fined to a few palace or temple scribes. Hence there was little demand for 
the disk maker's beautiful product, and little incentive to invest in making 
the dozens of hand punches required. In contrast, the potential mass mar- 
ket for printing in medieval Europe induced numerous investors to lend 
money to Gutenberg. 

HUMAN technology DEVELOPED from the first stone tools, in use 
by two and a half million years ago, to the 1996 laser printer that replaced 
my already outdated 1992 laser printer and that was used to print this 
book's manuscript. The rate of development was undetectably slow at the 
beginning, when hundreds of thousands of years passed with no discern- 
ible change in our stone tools and with no surviving evidence for artifacts 
made of other materials. Today, technology advances so rapidly that it is 
reported in the daily newspaper. 

In this long history of accelerating development, one can single out two 
especially significant jumps. The first, occurring between 100,000 and 
50,000 years ago, probably was made possible by genetic changes in our 
bodies: namely, by evolution of the modern anatomy permitting modern 
speech or modern brain function, or both. That jump led to bone tools, 
single-purpose stone tools, and compound tools. The second jump resulted 
from our adoption of a sedentary lifestyle, which happened at different 
times in different parts of the world, as early as 13,000 years ago in some 
areas and not even today in others. For the most part, that adoption was 
linked to our adoption of food production, which required us to remain 
close to our crops, orchards, and stored food surpluses. 

Sedentary living was decisive for the history of technology, because it 
enabled people to accumulate nonportable possessions. Nomadic hunter- 


gatherers are limited to technology that can be carried. If you move often 
and lack vehicles or draft animals, you confine your possessions to babies, 
weapons, and a bare minimum of other absolute necessities small enough 
to carry. You can't be burdened with pottery and printing presses as you 
shift camp. That practical difficulty probably explains the tantalizingly 
early appearance of some technologies, followed by a long delay in their 
further development. For example, the earliest attested precursors of 
ceramics are fired clay figurines made in the area of modern Czechoslova- 
kia 27,000 years ago, long before the oldest known fired clay vessels (from 
Japan 14,000 years ago). The same area of Czechoslovakia at the same 
time has yielded the earliest evidence for weaving, otherwise not attested 
until the oldest known basket appears around 13,000 years ago and the 
oldest known woven cloth around 9,000 years ago. Despite these very 
early first steps, neither pottery nor weaving took off until people became 
sedentary and thereby escaped the problem of transporting pots and 

Besides permitting sedentary living and hence the accumulation of pos- 
sessions, food production was decisive in the history of technology for 
another reason. It became possible, for the first time in human evolution, 
to develop economically specialized societies consisting of non-food-pro- 
ducing specialists fed by food-producing peasants. But we already saw, in 
Part 2 of this book, that food production arose at different times in differ- 
ent continents. In addition, as we've seen in this chapter, local technology 
depends, for both its origin and its maintenance, not only on local inven- 
tion but also on the diffusion of technology from elsewhere. That consider- 
ation tended to cause technology to develop most rapidly on continents 
with few geographic and ecological barriers to diffusion, either within that 
continent or on other continents. Finally, each society on a continent repre- 
sents one more opportunity to invent and adopt a technology, because 
societies vary greatly in their innovativeness for many separate reasons. 
Hence, all other things being equal, technology develops fastest in large 
productive regions with large human populations, many potential inven- 
tors, and many competing societies. 

Let us now summarize how variations in these three factors — time of 
onset of food production, barriers to diffusion, and human population 
size — led straightforwardly to the observed intercontinental differences in 
the development of technology. Eurasia (effectively including North 


Africa) is the world's largest landmass, encompassing the largest number 
of competing societies. It was also the landmass with the two centers where 
food production began the earliest: the Fertile Crescent and China. Its 
east-west major axis permitted many inventions adopted in one part of 
Eurasia to spread relatively rapidly to societies at similar latitudes and 
climates elsewhere in Eurasia. Its breadth along its minor axis (north- 
south) contrasts with the Americas' narrowness at the Isthmus of Panama. 
It lacks the severe ecological barriers transecting the major axes of the 
Americas and Africa. Thus, geographic and ecological barriers to diffusion 
of technology were less severe in Eurasia than in other continents. Thanks 
to all these factors, Eurasia was the continent on which technology started 
its post-Pleistocene acceleration earliest and resulted in the greatest local 
accumulation of technologies. 

North and South America are conventionally regarded as separate con- 
tinents, but they have been connected for several million years, pose simi- 
lar historical problems, and may be considered together for comparison 
with Eurasia. The Americas form the world's second-largest landmass, sig- 
nificantly smaller than Eurasia. However, they are fragmented by geogra- 
phy and by ecology: the Isthmus of Panama, only 40 miles wide, virtually 
transects the Americas geographically, as do the isthmus's Darien rain for- 
ests and the northern Mexican desert ecologically. The latter desert sepa- 
rated advanced human societies of Mesoamerica from those of North 
America, while the isthmus separated advanced societies of Mesoamerica 
from those of the Andes and Amazonia. In addition, the main axis of the 
Americas is north-south, forcing most diffusion to go against a gradient 
of latitude (and climate) rather than to operate within the same latitude. 
For example, wheels were invented in Mesoamerica, and llamas were 
domesticated in the central Andes by 3000 B.C., but 5,000 years later the 
Americas' sole beast of burden and sole wheels had still not encountered 
each other, even though the distance separating Mesoamerica's Maya soci- 
eties from the northern border of the Inca Empire (1,200 miles) was far 
less than the 6,000 miles separating wheel- and horse-sharing France and 
China. Those factors seem to me to account for the Americas' technologi- 
cal lag behind Eurasia. 

Sub-Saharan Africa is the world's third largest landmass, considerably 
smaller than the Americas. Throughout most of human history it was far 
more accessible to Eurasia than were the Americas, but the Saharan desert 
is still a major ecological barrier separating sub-Saharan Africa from 


2 6 3 

Eurasia plus North Africa. Africa's north-south axis posed a further obsta- 
cle to the diffusion of technology, both between Eurasia and sub-Saharan 
Africa and within the sub-Saharan region itself. As an illustration of the 
latter obstacle, pottery and iron metallurgy arose in or reached sub- 
Saharan Africa's Sahel zone (north of the equator) at least as early as they 
reached western Europe. However, pottery did not reach the southern tip 
of Africa until around A.D. 1, and metallurgy had not yet diffused overland 
to the southern tip by the time that it arrived there from Europe on ships. 

Finally, Australia is the smallest continent. The very low rainfall and 
productivity of most of Australia makes it effectively even smaller as 
regards its capacity to support human populations. It is also the most iso- 
lated continent. In addition, food production never arose indigenously in 
Australia. Those factors combined to leave Australia the sole continent 
still without metal artifacts in modern times. 

Table 13.1 translates these factors into numbers, by comparing the con- 
tinents with respect to their areas and their modern human populations. 
The continents' populations 10,000 years ago, just before the rise of food 
production, are not known but surely stood in the same sequence, since 
many of the areas producing the most food today would also have been 
productive areas for hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago. The differences in 
population are glaring: Eurasia's (including North Africa's) is nearly 6 
times that of the Americas, nearly 8 times that of Africa's, and 230 times 
that of Australia's. Larger populations mean more inventors and more 
competing societies. Table 13.1 by itself goes a long way toward 
explaining the origins of guns and steel in Eurasia. 

All these effects that continental differences in area, population, ease of 

table 13.1 Human Populations of the Continents 





(square miles) 

Eurasia and North Africa 






(North Africa) 



North America and South America 



Sub-Saharan Africa 






2 6 4 


diffusion, and onset of food production exerted on the rise of technology 
became exaggerated, because technology catalyzes itself. Eurasia's consid- 
erable initial advantage thereby was translated into a huge lead as of A.D. 
1492 — for reasons of Eurasia's distinctive geography rather than of dis- 
tinctive human intellect. The New Guineans whom I know include poten- 
tial Edisons. But they directed their ingenuity toward technological 
problems appropriate to their situations: the problems of surviving with- 
out any imported items in the New Guinea jungle, rather than the problem 
of inventing phonographs. 



over a remote swamp-filled basin of New Guinea, I noticed a few huts 
many miles apart. The pilot explained to me that, somewhere in that 
muddy expanse below us, a group of Indonesian crocodile hunters had 
recently come across a group of New Guinea nomads. Both groups had 
panicked, and the encounter had ended with the Indonesians shooting sev- 
eral of the nomads. 

My missionary friends guessed that the nomads belonged to an uncon-i 
tacted group called the Fayu, known to the outside world only through 
accounts by their terrified neighbors, a missionized group of erstwhile 
nomads called the Kirikiri. First contacts between outsiders and New 
Guinea groups are always potentially dangerous, but this beginning was 
especially inauspicious. Nevertheless, my friend Doug flew in by helicopter 
to try to establish friendly relations with the Fayu. He returned, alive but 
shaken, to tell a remarkable story. 

It turned out that the Fayu normally lived as single families, scattered 
through the swamp and coming together once or twice each year to negoti- 
ate exchanges of brides. Doug's visit coincided with such a gathering, of a 
few dozen Fayu. To us, a few dozen people constitute a small, ordinary 
gathering, but to the Fayu it was a rare, frightening event. Murderers sud- 


denly found themselves face-to-face with their victim's relatives. For exam- 
ple, one Fayu man spotted the man who had killed his father. The son 
raised his ax and rushed at the murderer but was wrestied to the ground 
by friends; then the murderer came at the prostrate son with an ax and 
was also wrestled down. Both men were held, screaming in rage, until 
they seemed sufficiently exhausted to be released. Other men periodically 
shouted insults at each other, shook with anger and frustration, and 
pounded the ground with their axes. That tension continued for the several 
days of the gathering, while Doug prayed that the visit would not end in 

The Fayu consist of about 400 hunter-gatherers, divided into four clans 
and wandering over a few hundred square miles. According to their own 
account, they had formerly numbered about 2,000, but their population 
had been greatly reduced as a result of Fayu killing Fayu. They lacked 
political and social mechanisms, which we take for granted, to achieve 
peaceful resolution of serious disputes. Eventually, as a result of Doug's 
visit, one group of Fayu invited a courageous husband-and-wife mission- 
ary couple to live with them. The couple has now resided there for a dozen 
years and gradually persuaded the Fayu to renounce violence. The Fayu 
are thereby being brought into the modern world, where they face an 
uncertain future. 

Many other previously uncontacted groups of New Guineans and Ama- 
zonian Indians have similarly owed to missionaries their incorporation 
into modern society. After the missionaries come teachers and doctors, 
bureaucrats and soldiers. The spreads of government and of religion have 
thus been linked to each other throughout recorded history, whether the 
spread has been peaceful (as eventually with the Fayu) or by force. In the 
latter case it is often government that organizes the conquest, and religion 
that justifies it. While nomads and tribespeople occasionally defeat orga- 
nized governments and religions, the trend over the past 13,000 years has 
been for the nomads and tribespeople to lose. 

At the end of the last Ice Age, much of the world's population lived in 
societies similar to that of the Fayu today, and no people then lived in a 
much more complex society. As recently as A.D. 1500, less than 20 percent 
of the world's land area was marked off by boundaries into states run by 
bureaucrats and governed by laws. Today, all land except Antarctica's is 
so divided. Descendants of those societies that achieved centralized gov- 
ernment and organized religion earliest ended up dominating the modern 


world. The combination of government and religion has thus functioned, 
together with germs, writing, and technology, as one of the four main sets 
of proximate agents leading to history's broadest pattern. How did gov- 
ernment and religion arise? 

FAYU BANDS AND modern states represent opposite extremes along the 
spectrum of human societies. Modern American society and the Fayu dif- 
fer in the presence or absence of a professional police force, cities, money, 
distinctions between rich and poor, and many other political, economic, 
and social institutions. Did all of those institutions arise together, or did 
some arise before others? We can infer the answer to this question by com- 
paring modern societies at different levels of organization, by examining 
written accounts or archaeological evidence about past societies, and by 
observing how a society's institutions change over time. 

Cultural anthropologists attempting to describe the diversity of human 
societies often divide them into as many as half a dozen categories. Any 
such attempt to define stages of any evolutionary or developmental contin- 
uum — whether of musical styles, human life stages, or human societies — 
is doubly doomed to imperfection. First, because each stage grows out of 
some previous stage, the lines of demarcation are inevitably arbitrary. (For 
example, is a 19-year-old person an adolescent or a young adult?) Second, 
developmental sequences are not invariant, so examples pigeonholed 
under the same stage are inevitably heterogeneous. (Brahms and Liszt 
would turn in their graves to know that they are now grouped together 
as composers of the romantic period.) Nevertheless, arbitrarily delineated 
stages provide a useful shorthand for discussing the diversity of music and 
of human societies, provided one bears in mind the above caveats. In that 
spirit, we shall use a simple classification based on just four categories — 
band, tribe, chiefdom, and state (see Table 14.1) — to understand societies. 

Bands are the tiniest societies, consisting typically of 5 to 80 people, 
most or all of them close relatives by birth or by marriage. In effect, a band 
is an extended family or several related extended families. Today, bands 
still living autonomously are almost confined to the most remote parts of 
New Guinea and Amazonia, but within modern times there were many 
others that have only recently fallen under state control or been assimi- 
lated or exterminated. They include many or most African Pygmies, south- 
ern African San hunter-gatherers (so-called Bushmen), Aboriginal 


Table 14.1 Types of Societies 





Number of 



Basis of relation- 

Ethnicities and 


Decision making, 


Monopoly of 
force and 

Conflict resolu- 

Hierarchy of 




fixed: 1 

kin -based 



fixed: 1 or more 

class and resi- 


"egalitarian" "egalitarian" centralized, 
or hereditary 








none, or 1 or 

2 levels 


no ^para- 
mount village 

over 50,000 

fixed: many 
and cities 

class and 

1 or more 


many levels 

laws, judges 

Australians, Eskimos (Inuit), and Indians of some resource-poor areas of 
the Americas such as Tierra del Fuego and the northern boreal forests. All 
those modern bands are or were nomadic hunter-gatherers rather than 
settled food producers. Probably all humans lived in bands until at least 
40,000 years ago, and most still did as recently as 11,000 years ago. 

Bands lack many institutions that we take for granted in our own soci- 
ety. They have no permanent single base of residence. The band's land is 
used jointly by the whole group, instead of being partitioned among sub- 
groups or individuals. There is no regular economic specialization, except 
by age and sex: all able-bodied individuals forage for food. There are 
no formal institutions, such as laws, police, and treaties, to resolve con- 
flicts within and between bands. Band organization is often described as 






Justifies klepto- 



Food production no 
Division of labor no 



Control of land band 



Luxury goods 
for elite 

Public architec- 

Indigenous lit- 






no-* yes 








yes-* no 

yes -* intensive intensive 

no-* yes 


yes, by kin 


no-* yes 



yes, not 
by kin 



A horizontal arrow indicates that the attribute varies between less and more complex socie- 
ties of that type. 

"egalitarian": there is no formalized social stratification into upper and 
lower classes, no formalized or hereditary leadership, and no formalized 
monopolies of information and decision making. However, the term 
"egalitarian" should not be taken to mean that all band members are equal 
in prestige and contribute equally to decisions. Rather, the term merely 
means that any band "leadership" is informal and acquired through quali- 
ties such as personality, strength, intelligence, and fighting skills. 

My own experience with bands comes from the swampy lowland area 
of New Guinea where the Fayu Jive, a region known as the Lakes Plains. 
There, I still encounter extended families of a few adults with their depen- 
dent children and elderly, living in crude temporary shelters along streams 
and traveling by canoe and on foot. Why do peoples of the Lakes Plains 


continue to live as nomadic bands, when most other New Guinea peoples, 
and almost all other peoples elsewhere in the world, now live in settled 
larger groups? The explanation is that the region lacks dense local concen- 
trations of resources that would permit many people to live together, and 
that (until the arrival of missionaries bringing crop plants) it also lacked 
native plants that could have permitted productive farming. The bands' 
food staple is the sago palm tree, whose core yields a starchy pith when 
the palm reaches maturity. The bands are nomadic, because they must 
move when they have cut the mature sago trees in an area. Band numbers 
are kept low by diseases (especially malaria), by the lack of raw materials 
in the swamp (even stone for tools must be obtained by trade), and by the 
limited amount of food that the swamp yields for humans. Similar limita- 
tions on the resources accessible to existing human technology prevail in 
the regions of the world recently occupied by other bands. 

Our closest animal relatives, the gorillas and chimpanzees and bonobos 
of Africa, also live in bands. All humans presumably did so too, until 
improved technology for extracting food allowed some hunter-gatherers 
to settle in permanent dwellings in some resource-rich areas. The band is 
the political, economic, and social organization that we inherited from our 
millions of years of evolutionary history. Our developments beyond it all 
took place within the last few tens of thousands of years. 

THE FIRST OF those stages beyond the band is termed the tribe, which 
differs in being larger (typically comprising hundreds rather than dozens 
of people) and usually having fixed settlements. However, some tribes and 
even chiefdoms consist of herders who move seasonally. 

Tribal organization is exemplified by New Guinea highlanders, whose 
political unit before the arrival of colonial government was a village or 
else a close-knit cluster of villages. This political definition of "tribe" is 
thus often much smaller than what linguists and cultural anthropologists 
would define as a tribe — namely, a group that shares language and culture. 
For example, in 1964 I began to work among a group of highlanders 
known as the Fore. By linguistic and cultural standards, there were then 
12,000 Fore, speaking two mutually intelligible dialects and living in 65 
villages of several hundred people each. But there was no political unity 
whatsoever among villages of the Fore language group. Each hamlet was 
involved in a kaleidoscopically changing pattern of war and shifting alii- 


ances with all neighboring hamlets, regardless of whether the neighbors 
were Fore or speakers of a different language. 

Tribes, recently independent and now variously subordinated to 
national states, still occupy much of New Guinea, Melanesia, and Ama- 
zonia. Similar tribal organization in the past is inferred from archaeologi- 
cal evidence of settlements that were substantial but lacked the 
archaeological hallmarks of chiefdoms that I shall explain below. That 
evidence suggests that tribal organization began to emerge around 13,000 
years ago in the Fertile Crescent and later in some other areas. A prerequi- 
site for living in settlements is either food production or else a productive 
environment with especially concentrated resources that can be hunted 
and gathered within a small area. That's why settlements, and by inference 
tribes, began to proliferate in the Fertile Crescent at that time, when cli- 
mate changes and improved technology combined to permit abundant har- 
vests of wild cereals. 

Besides differing from a band by virtue of its settled residence and its 
larger numbers, a tribe also differs in that it consists of more than one 
formally recognized kinship group, termed clans, which exchange mar- 
riage partners. Land belongs to a particular clan, not to the whole tribe. 
However, the number of people in a tribe is still low enough that everyone 
knows everyone else by name and relationships. 

For other types of human groups as well, "a few hundred" seems to be 
an upper limit for group size compatible with everyone's knowing every- 
body. In our state society, for instance, school principals are likely to know 
all their students by name if the school contains a few hundred children, 
but not if it contains a few thousand children. One reason why the organi- 
zation of human government tends to change from that of a tribe to that 
of a chiefdom in societies with more than a few hundred members is that 
the difficult issue of conflict resolution between strangers becomes increas- 
ingly acute in larger groups. A fact further diffusing potential problems of 
conflict resolution in tribes is that almost everyone is related to everyone 
else, by blood or marriage or both. Those ties of relationships binding all 
tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions 
of larger societies unnecessary, since any two villagers getting into an argu- 
ment will share many kin, who apply pressure on them to keep it from 
becoming violent. In traditional New Guinea society, if a New Guinean 
happened to encounter an unfamiliar New Guinean while both were away 
from their respective villages, the two engaged in a long discussion of their 



relatives, in an attempt to establish some relationship and hence some rea- 
son why the two should not attempt to kill each other. 

Despite all of these differences between bands and tribes, many similari- 
ties remain. Tribes still have an informal, "egalitarian" system of govern- 
ment. Information and decision making are both communal. In the New 
Guinea highlands, I have watched village meetings where all adults in the 
village were present, sitting on the ground, and individuals made speeches, 
without any appearance of one person's "chairing" the discussion. Many 
highland villages do have someone known as the "big-man," the most 
influential man of the village. But that position is not a formal office to be 
filled and carries only limited power. The big-man has no independent 
decision-making authority, knows no diplomatic secrets, and can do no 
more than attempt to sway communal decisions. Big-men achieve that sta- 
tus by their own attributes; the position is not inherited. 

Tribes also share with bands an "egalitarian" social system, without 
ranked lineages or classes. Not only is status not inherited; no member of 
a traditional tribe or band can become disproportionately wealthy by his 
or her own efforts, because each individual has debts and obligations to 
many others. It is therefore impossible for an outsider to guess, from 
appearances, which of all the adult men in a village is the big-man: he lives 
in the same type of hut, wears the same clothes or ornaments, or is as 
naked, as everyone else. 

Like bands, tribes lack a bureaucracy, police force, and taxes. Their 
economy is based on reciprocal exchanges between individuals or families, 
rather than on a redistribution of tribute paid to some central authority. 
Economic specialization is slight: full-time crafts specialists are lacking, 
and every able-bodied adult (including the big-man) participates in grow- 
ing, gathering, or hunting food. I recall one occasion when I was walking 
past a garden in the Solomon Islands, saw a man digging and waving at 
me in the distance, and realized to my astonishment that it was a friend of 
mine named Faletau. He was the most famous wood carver of the Solo- 
mons, an artist of great originality — but that did not free him of the neces- 
sity to grow his own sweet potatoes. Since tribes thus lack economic 
specialists, they also lack slaves, because there are no specialized menial 
jobs for a slave to perform. 

Just as musical composers of the classical period range from C. P. E. 
Bach to Schubert and thereby cover the whole spectrum from baroque 
composers to romantic composers, tribes also shade into bands at one 


extreme and into chiefdoms at the opposite extreme. In particular, a tribal 
big-man's role in dividing the meat of pigs slaughtered for feasts points to 
the role of chiefs in collecting and redistributing food and goods — now 
reconstrued as tribute — in chiefdoms. Similarly, presence or absence of 
public architecture is supposedly one of the distinctions between tribes and 
chiefdoms, but large New Guinea villages often have cult houses (known 
as haus tamburan, on the Sepik River) that presage the temples of chief- 

ALTHOUGH A FEW bands and tribes survive today on remote and eco- 
logically marginal lands outside state control, fully independent chiefdoms 
had disappeared by the early twentieth century, because they tended to 
occupy prime land coveted by states. However, as of A.D. 1492, chiefdoms 
were still widespread over much of the eastern United States, in productive 
areas of South and Central America and sub-Saharan Africa that had not 
yet been subsumed under native states, and in all of Polynesia. The archae- 
ological evidence discussed below suggests that chiefdoms arose by around 
5500 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent and by around 1000 B.C. in Mesoamerica 
and the Andes. Let us consider the distinctive features of chiefdoms, very 
different from modern European and American states and, at the same 
time, from bands and simple tribal societies. 

As regards population size, chiefdoms were considerably larger than 
tribes, ranging from several thousand to several tens of thousands of peo- 
ple. That size created serious potential for internal conflict because, for 
any person living in a chiefdom, the vast majority of other people in the 
chiefdom were neither closely related by blood or marriage nor known by 
name. With the rise of chiefdoms around 7,500 years ago, people had to 
learn, for the first time in history, how to encounter strangers regularly 
without attempting to kill them. 

Part of the solution to that problem was for one person, the chief, to 
exercise a monopoly on the right to use force. In contrast to a tribe's big- 
man, a chief held a recognized office, filled by hereditary right. Instead of 
the decentralized anarchy of a village meeting, the chief was a permanent 
centralized authority, made all significant decisions, and had a monopoly 
on critical information (such as what a neighboring chief was privately 
threatening, or what harvest the gods had supposedly promised). Unlike 
big-men, chiefs could be recognized from afar by visible distinguishing 


features, such as a large fan worn over the back on Rennell Island in the 
Southwest Pacific. A commoner encountering a chief was obliged to per- 
form ritual marks of respect, such as (on Hawaii) prostrating oneself. The 
chiefs orders might be transmitted through one or two levels of bureau- 
crats, many of whom were themselves low-ranked chiefs. However, in con- 
trast to state bureaucrats, chiefdom bureaucrats had generalized rather 
than specialized roles. In Polynesian Hawaii the same bureaucrats (termed 
konohiki) extracted tribute and oversaw irrigation and organized labor 
corvees for the chief, whereas state societies have separate tax collectors, 
water district managers, and draft boards. 

A chiefdom's large population in a small area required plenty of food, 
obtained by food production in most cases, by hunting-gathering in a few 
especially rich areas. For example, American Indians of the Pacific North- 
west coast, such as the Kwakiutl, Nootka, and Tlingit Indians, lived under 
chiefs in villages without any agriculture or domestic animals, because the 
rivers and sea were so rich in salmon and halibut. The food surpluses gen- 
erated by some people, relegated to the rank of commoners, went to feed 
the chiefs, their families, bureaucrats, and crafts specialists, who variously 
made canoes, adzes, or spittoons or worked as bird catchers or tattooers. 

Luxury goods, consisting of those specialized crafts products or else 
rare objects obtained by long-distance trade, were reserved for chiefs. For 
example, Hawaiian chiefs had feather cloaks, some of them consisting of 
tens of thousands of feathers and requiring many human generations for 
their manufacture (by commoner cloak makers, of course). That concen- 
tration of luxury goods often makes it possible to recognize chiefdoms 
archaeologically, by the fact that some graves (those of chiefs) contain 
much richer goods than other graves (those of commoners), in contrast 
to the egalitarian burials of earlier human history. Some ancient complex 
chiefdoms can also be distinguished from tribal villages by the remains of 
elaborate public architecture (such as temples) and by a regional hierarchy 
of settlements, with one site (the site of the paramount chief) being obvi- 
ously larger and having more administrative buildings and artifacts than 
other sites. 

Like tribes, chiefdoms consisted of multiple hereditary lineages living at 
one site. However, whereas the lineages of tribal villages are equal-ranked 
clans, in a chiefdom all members of the chiefs lineage had hereditary per- 
quisites. In effect, the society was divided into hereditary chief and com- 
moner classes, with Hawaiian chiefs themselves subdivided into eight 


hierarchically ranked lineages, each concentrating its marriages within its 
own lineage. Furthermore, since chiefs required menial servants as well as 
specialized craftspeople, chiefdoms differed from tribes in having many 
jobs that could be filled by slaves, typically obtained by capture in raids. 

The most distinctive economic feature of chiefdoms was their shift from 
reliance solely on the reciprocal exchanges characteristic of bands and 
tribes, by which A gives B a gift while expecting that B at some unspecified 
future time will give a gift of comparable value to A. We modern state 
dwellers indulge in such behavior on birthdays and holidays, but most of 
our flow of goods is achieved instead by buying and selling for money 
according to the law of supply and demand. While continuing reciprocal 
exchanges and without marketing or money, chiefdoms developed an addi- 
tional new system termed a redistributive economy. A simple example 
would involve a chief receiving wheat at harvest time from every farmer 
in the chiefdom, then throwing a feast for everybody and serving bread or 
else storing the wheat and gradually giving it out again in the months 
between harvests. When a large portion of the goods received from com- 
moners was not redistributed to them but was retained and consumed by 
the chiefly lineages and craftspeople, the redistribution became tribute, a 
precursor of taxes that made its first appearance in chiefdoms. From the 
commoners the chiefs claimed not only goods but also labor for construc- 
tion of public works, which again might return to benefit the commoners 
(for example, irrigation systems to help feed everybody) or instead bene- 
fited mainly the chiefs (for instance, lavish tombs). 

We have been talking about chiefdoms generically, as if they were all 
the same. In fact, chiefdoms varied considerably. Larger ones tended to 
have more powerful chiefs, more ranks of chiefly lineages, greater distinc- 
tions between chiefs and commoners, more retention of tribute by the 
chiefs, more layers of bureaucrats, and grander public architecture. For 
instance, societies on small Polynesian islands were effectively rather simi- 
lar to tribal societies with a big-man, except that the position of chief was 
hereditary. The chiefs hut looked like any other hut, there were no bureau- 
crats or public works, the chief redistributed most goods he received back 
to the commoners, and land was controlled by the community. But on the 
largest Polynesian islands, such as Hawaii, Tahiti, and Tonga, chiefs were 
recognizable at a glance by their ornaments, public works were erected by 
large labor forces, most tribute was retained by the chiefs, and all land 
was controlled by them. A further gradation among societies with ranked 


lineages was from those where the political unit was a single autonomous 
village, to those consisting of a regional assemblage of villages in which 
the largest village with a paramount chief controlled the smaller villages 
with lesser chiefs. 

BY NOW, IT should be obvious that chiefdoms introduced the dilemma 
fundamental to all centrally governed, nonegalitarian societies. At best, 
they do good by providing expensive services impossible to contract for on 
an individual basis. At worst, they function unabashedly as kleptocracies, 
transferring net wealth from commoners to upper classes. These noble and 
selfish functions are inextricably linked, although some governments 
emphasize much more of one function than of the other. The difference 
between a kleptocrat and a wise statesman, between a robber baron and a 
public benefactor, is merely one of degree: a matter of just how large a 
percentage of the tribute extracted from producers is retained by the elite, 
and how much the commoners like the public uses to which the redistrib- 
uted tribute is put. We consider President Mobutu of Zaire a kleptocrat 
because he keeps too much tribute (the equivalent of billions of dollars) 
and redistributes too little tribute (no functioning telephone system in 
Zaire). We consider George Washington a statesman because he spent tax 
money on widely admired programs and did not enrich himself as presi- 
dent. Nevertheless, George Washington was born into wealth, which is 
much more unequally distributed in the United States than in New Guinea 

For any ranked society, whether a chiefdom or a state, one thus has to 
ask: why do the commoners tolerate the transfer of the fruits of their hard 
labor to kleptocrats? This question, raised by political theorists from Plato 
to Marx, is raised anew by voters in every modern election. Kleptocracies 
with little public support run the risk of being overthrown, either by 
downtrodden commoners or by upstart would-be replacement kleptocrats 
seeking public support by promising a higher ratio of services rendered to 
fruits stolen. For example, Hawaiian history was repeatedly punctuated 
by revolts against repressive chiefs, usually led by younger brothers prom- 
ising less oppression. This may sound funny to us in the context of old 
Hawaii, until we reflect on all the misery still being caused by such strug- 
gles in the modern world. 

What should an elite do to gain popular support while still maintaining 


a more comfortable lifestyle than commoners? Kleptocrats throughout the 
ages have resorted to a mixture of four solutions: 

1. Disarm the populace, and arm the elite. That's much easier in these 
days of high-tech weaponry, produced only in industrial plants and easily 
monopolized by an elite, than in ancient times of spears and clubs easily 
made at home. 

2. Make the masses happy by redistributing much of the tribute 
received, in popular ways. This principle was as valid for Hawaiian chiefs 
as it is for American politicians today. 

3. Use the monopoly of force to promote happiness, by maintaining 
public order and curbing violence. This is potentially a big and underap- 
preciated advantage of centralized societies over noncentralized ones. 
Anthropologists formerly idealized band and tribal societies as gentle and 
nonviolent, because visiting anthropologists observed no murder in a band 
of 25 people in the course of a three-year study. Of course they didn't: it's 
easy to calculate that a band of a dozen adults and a dozen children, sub-i 
ject to the inevitable deaths occurring anyway for the usual reasons other 
than murder, could not perpetuate itself if in addition one of its dozen 
adults murdered another adult every three years. Much more extensive 
long-term information about band and tribal societies reveals that murder 
is a leading cause of death. For example, I happened to be visiting New 
Guinea's Iyau people at a time when a woman anthropologist was inter- 
viewing Iyau women about their life histories. Woman after woman, when 
asked to name her husband, named several sequential husbands who had 
died violent deaths. A typical answer went like this: "My first husband 
was killed by Elopi raiders. My second husband was killed by a man who 
wanted me, and who became my third husband. That husband was killed 
by the brother of my second husband, seeking to avenge his murder." Such 
biographies prove common for so-called gentle tribespeople and contrib- 
uted to the acceptance of centralized authority as tribal societies grew 

4. The remaining way for kleptocrats to gain public support is to con- 
struct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy. Bands and tribes 
already had supernatural beliefs, just as do modern established religions, 
But the supernatural beliefs of bands and tribes did not serve to justify 
central authority, justify transfer of wealth, or maintain peace between 
unrelated individuals. When supernatural beliefs gained those functions 
and became institutionalized, they were thereby transformed into what we 


term a religion. Hawaiian chiefs were typical of chiefs elsewhere, in 
asserting divinity, divine descent, or at least a hotline to the gods. The chief 
claimed to serve the people by interceding for them with the gods and 
reciting the ritual formulas required to obtain rain, good harvests, and 
success in fishing. 

Chiefdoms characteristically have an ideology, precursor to an institu- 
tionalized religion, that buttresses the chiefs authority. The chief may 
either combine the offices of political leader and priest in a single person, 
or may support a separate group of kleptocrats (that is, priests) whose 
function is to provide ideological justification for the chiefs. That is why 
chiefdoms devote so much collected tribute to constructing temples and 
other public works, which serve as centers of the official religion and visi- 
ble signs of the chiefs power. 

Besides justifying the transfer of wealth to kleptocrats, institutionalized 
religion brings two other important benefits to centralized societies. First, 
shared ideology or religion helps solve the problem of how unrelated indi- 
viduals are to live together without killing each other — by providing them 
with a bond not based on kinship. Second, it gives people a motive, other 
than genetic self-interest, for sacrificing their lives on behalf of others. At 
the cost of a few society members who die in battle as soldiers, the whole 
society becomes much more effective at conquering other societies or 
resisting attacks. 

THE POLITICAL, economic, and social institutions most familiar to 
us today are those of states, which now rule all of the world's land area 
except for Antarctica. Many early states and all modern ones have had 
literate elites, and many modern states have literate masses as well. Van- 
ished states tended to leave visible archaeological hallmarks, such as rains 
of temples with standardized designs, at least four levels of settlement 
sizes, and pottery styles covering tens of thousands of square miles. We 
thereby know that states arose around 3700 B.C. in Mesopotamia and 
around 300 B.C. in Mesoamerica, over 2,000 years ago in the Andes, 
China, and Southeast Asia, and over 1,000 years ago in West Africa. In 
modern times the formation of states out of chiefdoms has been observed 
repeatedly. Thus, we possess much more information about past states and 
their formation than about past chiefdoms, tribes, and bands. 

Protostates extend many features of large paramount (multivillage) 


chiefdoms. They continue the increase in size from bands to tribes to chief- 
doms. Whereas chiefdoms' populations range from a few thousand to a 
few tens of thousands, the populations of most modern states exceed one 
million, and China's exceeds one billion. The paramount chiefs location 
may become the state's capital city. Other population centers of states out- 
side the capital may also qualify as true cities, which are lacking in chief- 
doms. Cities differ from villages in their monumental public works, 
palaces of rulers, accumulation of capital from tribute or taxes, and con- 
centration of people other than food producers. 

Early states had a hereditary leader with a title equivalent to king, like 
a super paramount chief and exercising an even greater monopoly of infor- 
mation, decision making, and power. Even in democracies today, crucial 
knowledge is available to only a few individuals, who control the flow of 
information to the rest of the government and consequently control deci- 
sions. For instance, in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963, information and 
discussions that determined whether nuclear war would engulf half a bil- 
lion people were initially confined by President Kennedy to a ten-member 
executive committee of the National Security Council that he himself 
appointed; then he limited final decisions to a four-member group con- 
sisting of himself and three of his cabinet ministers. 

Central control is more far-reaching, and economic redistribution in the 
form of tribute (renamed taxes) more extensive, in states than in chief- 
doms. Economic specialization is more extreme, to the point where today 
not even farmers remain self-sufficient. Hence the effect on society is cata- 
strophic when state government collapses, as happened in Britain upon the 
removal of Roman troops, administrators, and coinage between A.D. 407 
and 411. Even the earliest Mesopotamian states exercised centralized con- 
trol of their economies. Their food was produced by four specialist groups 
(cereal farmers, herders, fishermen, and orchard and garden growers), 
from each of which the state took the produce and to each of which it gave 
out the necessary supplies, tools, and foods other than the type of food 
that this group produced. The state supplied seeds and plow animals to 
the cereal farmers, took wool from the herders, exchanged the wool by 
long-distance trade for metal and other essential raw materials, and paid 
out food rations to the laborers who maintained the irrigation systems on 
which the farmers depended. 

Many, perhaps most, early states adopted slavery on a much larger scale 
than did chiefdoms. That was not because chiefdoms were more kindly 


disposed toward defeated enemies but because the greater economic spe- 
cialization of states, with more mass production and more public works, 
provided more uses for slave labor. In addition, the larger scale of state 
warfare made more captives available. 

A chiefdom's one or two levels of administration are greatly multiplied 
in states, as anyone who has seen an organizational chart of any govern- 
ment knows. Along with the proliferation of vertical levels of bureaucrats, 
there is also horizontal specialization. Instead of konohiki carrying out 
every aspect of administration for a Hawaiian district, state governments 
have several separate departments, each with its own hierarchy, to handle 
water management, taxes, military draft, and so on. Even small states have 
more complex bureaucracies than large chiefdoms. For instance, the West 
African state of Maradi had a central administration with over 130 titled 

Internal conflict resolution within states has become increasingly for- 
malized by laws, a judiciary, and police. The laws are often written, 
because many states (with conspicuous exceptions, such as that of the 
Incas) have had literate elites, writing having been developed around the 
same time as the formation of the earliest states in both Mesopotamia and 
Mesoamerica. In contrast, no early chiefdom not on the verge of statehood 
developed writing. 

Early states had state religions and standardized temples. Many early 
kings were considered divine and were accorded special treatment in innu- 
merable respects. For example, the Aztec and Inca emperors were both 
carried about in litters; servants went ahead of the Inca emperor's litter 
and swept the ground clear; and the Japanese language includes special 
forms of the pronoun "you" for use only in addressing the emperor. Early 
kings were themselves the head of the state religion or else had separate 
high priests. The Mesopotamian temple was the center not only of religion 
but also of economic redistribution, writing, and crafts technology. 

All these features of states carry to an extreme the developments that 
led from tribes to chiefdoms. In addition, though, states have diverged 
from chiefdoms in several new directions. The most fundamental such dis- 
tinction is that states are organized on political and territorial lines, not on 
the kinship lines that defined bands, tribes, and simple chiefdoms. Further- 
more, bands and tribes always, and chiefdoms usually, consist of a single 
ethnic and linguistic group. States, though — especially so-called empires 


formed by amalgamation or conquest of states — are regularly multiethnic 
and multilingual. State bureaucrats are not selected mainly on the basis of 
kinship, as in chiefdoms, but are professionals selected at least partly on 
the basis of training and ability. In later states, including most today, the 
leadership often became nonhereditary, and many states abandoned the 
entire system of formal hereditary classes carried over from chiefdoms. 

OVER THE PAST 13,000 years the predominant trend in human society 
has been the replacement of smaller, less complex units by larger, more 
complex ones. Obviously, that is no more than an average long-term trend, 
with innumerable shifts in either direction: 1,000 amalgamations for 999 
reversals. We know from our daily newspaper that large units (for 
instance, the former USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia) can disinte- 
grate into smaller units, as did Alexander of Macedon's empire over 2,000 
years ago. More complex units don't always conquer less complex ones 
but may succumb to them, as when the Roman and Chinese Empires were 
overrun by "barbarian" and Mongol chiefdoms, respectively. But the long- 
term trend has still been toward large, complex societies, culminating in 

Obviously, too, part of the reason for states' triumphs over simpler enti- 
ties when the two collide is that states usually enjoy an advantage of weap- 
onry and other technology, and a large numerical advantage in population. 
But there are also two other potential advantages inherent in chiefdoms 
and states. First, a centralized decision maker has the advantage at concen- 
trating troops and resources. Second, the official religions and patriotic 
fervor of many states make their troops willing to fight suicidally. 

The latter willingness is one so strongly programmed into us citizens of 
modern states, by our schools and churches and governments, that we 
forget what a radical break it marks with previous human history. Every 
state has its slogan urging its citizens to be prepared to die if necessary for 
the state: Britain's "For King and Country," Spain's "Por Dios y Espana," 
and so on. Similar sentiments motivated 16th-century Aztec warriors: 
"There is nothing like death in war, nothing like the flowery death so 
precious to Him [the Aztec national god Huitzilopochtli] who gives life: 
far off I see it, my heart yearns for it!" 

Such sentiments are unthinkable in bands and tribes. In all the accounts 


that my New Guinea friends have given me of their former tribal wars, 
there has been not a single hint of tribal patriotism, of a suicidal charge, 
or of any other military conduct carrying an accepted risk of being killed. 
Instead, raids are initiated by ambush or by superior force, so as to mini- 
mize at all costs the risk that one might die for one's village. But that 
attitude severely limits the military options of tribes, compared with state 
societies. Naturally, what makes patriotic and religious fanatics such dan- 
gerous opponents is not the deaths of the fanatics themselves, but their 
willingness to accept the deaths of a fraction of their number in order to 
annihilate or crush their infidel enemy. Fanaticism in war, of the type that 
drove recorded Christian and Islamic conquests, was probably unknown 
on Earth until chiefdoms and especially states emerged within the last 
6,000 years. 

How DID SMALL, noncentralized, kin-based societies evolve into large 
centralized ones in which most members are not closely related to each 
other? Having reviewed the stages in this transformation from bands to 
states, we now ask what impelled societies thus to transform themselves. 

At many moments in history, states have arisen independently — or, as 
cultural anthropologists say, "pristinely," that is, in the absence of any 
preexisting surrounding states. Pristine state origins took place at least 
once, possibly many times, on each of the continents except Australia and 
North America. Prehistoric states included those of Mesopotamia, North 
China, the Nile and Indus Valleys, Mesoamerica, the Andes, and West 
Africa. Native states in contact with European states have arisen from 
chiefdoms repeatedly in the last three centuries in Madagascar, Hawaii, 
Tahiti, and many parts of Africa. Chiefdoms have arisen pristinely even 
more often, in all of the same regions and in North America's Southeast 
and Pacific Northwest, the Amazon, Polynesia, and sub-Saharan Africa. 
All these origins of complex societies give us a rich database for under- 
standing their development. 

Of the many theories addressing the problem of state origins, the sim- 
plest denies that there is any problem to solve. Aristotle considered states 
the natural condition of human society, requiring no explanation. His 
error was understandable, because all the societies with which he would 
have been acquainted — Greek societies of the fourth century B.C. — were 


states. However, we now know that, as of A.D. 1492, much of the world 
was instead organized into chiefdoms, tribes, or bands. State formation 
does demand an explanation. 

The next theory is the most familiar one. The French philosopher Jean- 
Jacques Rousseau speculated that states are formed by a social contract, a 
rational decision reached when people calculated their self-interest, came 
to the agreement that they would be better off in a state than in simpler 
societies, and voluntarily did away with their simpler societies. But obser- 
vation and historical records have failed to uncover a single case of a state's 
being formed in that ethereal atmosphere of dispassionate farsightedness. 
Smaller units do not voluntarily abandon their sovereignty and merge into 
larger units. They do so only by conquest, or under external duress. 

A third theory, still popular with some historians and economists, sets 
out from the undoubted fact that, in both Mesopotamia and North China 
and Mexico, large-scale irrigation systems began to be constructed around 
the time that states started to emerge. The theory also notes that any big, 
complex system for irrigation or hydraulic management requires a central- 
ized bureaucracy to construct and maintain it. The theory then turns an 
observed rough correlation in time into a postulated chain of cause and 
effect. Supposedly, Mesopotamians and North Chinese and Mexicans 
foresaw the advantages that a large-scale irrigation system would bring 
them, even though there was at the time no such system within thousands 
of miles (or anywhere on Earth) to illustrate for them those advantages. 
Those farsighted people chose to merge their inefficient little chiefdoms 
into a larger state capable of blessing them with large-scale irrigation. 

However, this "hydraulic theory" of state formation is subject to the 
same objections leveled against social contract theories in general. More 
specifically, it addresses only the final stage in the evolution of complex 
societies. It says nothing about what drove the progression from bands to 
tribes to chiefdoms during all the millennia before the prospect of large- 
scale irrigation loomed up on the horizon. When historical or archaeologi- 
cal dates are examined in detail, they fail to support the view of irrigation 
as the driving force for state formation. In Mesopotamia, North China, 
Mexico, and Madagascar, small-scale irrigation systems already existed 
before the rise of states. Construction of large-scale irrigation systems did 
not accompany the emergence of states but came only significantly later in 
each of those areas. In most of the states formed over the Maya area of 


Mesoamerica and the Andes, irrigation systems always remained small- 
scale ones that local communities could build and maintain themselves. 
Thus, even in those areas where complex systems of hydraulic manage- 
ment did emerge, they were a secondary consequence of states that must 
have formed for other reasons. 

What seems to me to point to a fundamentally correct view of state 
formation is an undoubted fact of much wider validity than the correlation 
between irrigation and the formation of some states — namely, that the size 
of the regional population is the strongest single predictor of societal com- 
plexity. As we have seen, bands number a few dozen individuals, tribes a 
few hundred, chiefdoms a few thousand to a few tens of thousands, and 
states generally over about 50,000. In addition to that coarse correlation 
between regional population size and type of society (band, tribe, and so 
on), there is a finer trend, within each of those categories, between popula- 
tion and societal complexity: for instance, that chiefdoms with large popu- 
lations prove to be the most centralized, stratified, and complex ones. 

These correlations suggest strongly that regional population size or 
population density or population pressure has something to do with the 
formation of complex societies. But the correlations do not tell us precisely 
how population variables function in a chain of cause and effect whose 
outcome is a complex society. To trace out that chain, let us now remind 
ourselves how large dense populations themselves arise. Then we can 
examine why a large but simple society could not maintain itself. With 
that as background, we shall finally return to the question of how a sim- 
pler society actually becomes more complex as the regional population 

W E have seen that large or dense populations arise only under condi- 
tions of food production, or at least under exceptionally productive condi- 
tions for hunting-gathering. Some productive hunter-gatherer societies 
reached the organizational level of chiefdoms, but none reached the level 
of states: all states nourish their citizens by food production. These consid- 
erations, along with the just mentioned correlation between regional pop- 
ulation size and societal complexity, have led to a protracted chicken-or- 
egg debate about the causal relations between food production, popula- 
tion variables, and societal complexity. Is it intensive food production that 
is the cause, triggering population growth and somehow leading to a com- 


plex society? Or are large populations and complex societies instead the 
cause, somehow leading to intensification of food production? 

Posing the question in that either-or form misses the point. Intensified 
food production and societal complexity stimulate each other, by autoca-i 
talysis. That is, population growth leads to societal complexity, by mecha- 
nisms that we shall discuss, while societal complexity in turn leads to 
intensified food production and thereby to population growth. Complex 
centralized societies are uniquely capable of organizing public works 
(including irrigation systems), long-distance trade (including the importa- 
tion of metals to make better agricultural tools), and activities of different 
groups of economic specialists (such as feeding herders with farmers' 
cereal, and transferring the herders' livestock to farmers for use as plow 
animals). All of these capabilities of centralized societies have fostered 
intensified food production and hence population growth throughout his- 

In addition, food production contributes in at least three ways to spe- 
cific features of complex societies. First, it involves seasonally pulsed 
inputs of labor. When the harvest has been stored, the farmers' labor 
becomes available for a centralized political authority to harness — in order 
to build public works advertising state power (such as the Egyptian pyra- 
mids), or to build public works that could feed more mouths (such as 
Polynesian Hawaii's irrigation systems or fishponds), or to undertake wars 
of conquest to form larger political entities. 

Second, food production may be organized so as to generate stored food 
surpluses, which permit economic specialization and social stratification. 
The surpluses can be used to feed all tiers of a complex society: the chiefs, 
bureaucrats, and other members of the elite; the scribes, craftspeople, and 
other non-food-producing specialists; and the farmers themselves, during 
times that they are drafted to construct public works. 

Finally, food production permits or requires people to adopt sedentary 
living, which is a prerequisite for accumulating substantial possessions, 
developing elaborate technology and crafts, and constructing public 
works. The importance of fixed residence to a complex society explains 
why missionaries and governments, whenever they make first contact with 
previously uncontacted nomadic tribes or bands in New Guinea or the 
Amazon, universally have two immediate goals. One goal, of course, is the 
obvious one of "pacifying" the nomads: that is, dissuading them from 
killing missionaries, bureaucrats, or each other. The other goal is to induce 


the nomads to settle in villages, so that the missionaries and bureaucrats 
can find the nomads, bring them services such as medical care and schools, 
and proselytize and control them. 

THUS, FOOD PRODUCTION, which increases population size, also acts 
in many ways to make features of complex societies possible. But that 
doesn't prove that food production and large populations make complex 
societies inevitable. How can we account for the empirical observation 
that band or tribal organization just does not work for societies of hun- 
dreds of thousands of people, and that all existing large societies have 
complex centralized organization? We can cite at least four obvious rea- 

One reason is the problem of conflict between unrelated strangers. That 
problem grows astronomically as the number of people making up the 
society increases. Relationships within a band of 20 people involve only 
190 two-person interactions (20 people times 19 divided by 2), but a band 
of 2,000 would have 1,999,000 dyads. Each of those dyads represents a 
potential time bomb that could explode in a murderous argument. Each 
murder in band and tribal societies usually leads to an attempted revenge 
killing, starting one more unending cycle of murder and countermurder 
that destabilizes the society. 

In a band, where everyone is closely related to everyone else, people 
related simultaneously to both quarreling parties step in to mediate quar- 
rels. In a tribe, where many people are still close relatives and everyone at 
least knows everybody else by name, mutual relatives and mutual friends 
mediate the quarrel. But once the threshold of "several hundred," below 
which everyone can know everyone else, has been crossed, increasing num- 
bers of dyads become pairs of unrelated strangers. When strangers fight, 
few people present will be friends or relatives of both combatants, with 
self-interest in stopping the fight. Instead, many onlookers will be friends 
or relatives of only one combatant and will side with that person, escalat- 
ing the two-person fight into a general brawl. Hence a large society that 
continues to leave conflict resolution to all of its members is guaranteed to 
blow up. That factor alone would explain why societies of thousands can 
exist only if they develop centralized authority to monopolize force and 
resolve conflicts. 

A second reason is the growing impossibility of communal decision 


making with increasing population size. Decision making by the entire 
adult population is still possible in New Guinea villages small enough that 
news and information quickly spread to everyone, that everyone can hear 
everyone else in a meeting of the whole village, and that everyone who 
wants to speak at the meeting has the opportunity to do so. But all those 
prerequisites for communal decision making become unattainable in much 
larger communities. Even now, in these days of microphones and loud- 
speakers, we all know that a group meeting is no way to resolve issues for 
a group of thousands of people. Hence a large society must be structured 
and centralized if it is to reach decisions effectively. 

A third reason involves economic considerations. Any society requires 
means to transfer goods between its members. One individual may happen 
to acquire more of some essential commodity on one day and less on 
another. Because individuals have different talents, one individual consis- 
tently tends to wind up with an excess of some essentials and a deficit of 
others. In small societies with few pairs of members, the resulting neces- 
sary transfers of goods can be arranged directly between pairs of individu- 
als or families, by reciprocal exchanges. But the same mathematics that 
makes direct pairwise conflict resolution inefficient in large societies makes 
direct pairwise economic transfers also inefficient. Large societies can 
function economically only if they have a redistributive economy in addi- 
tion to a reciprocal economy. Goods in excess of an individual's needs 
must be transferred from the individual to a centralized authority, which 
then redistributes the goods to individuals with deficits. 

A final consideration mandating complex organization for large socie- 
ties has to do with population densities. Large societies of food producers 
have not only more members but also higher population densities than do 
small bands of hunter-gatherers. Each band of a few dozen hunters occu- 
pies a large territory, within which they can acquire most of the resources 
essential to them. They can obtain their remaining necessities by trading 
with neighboring bands during intervals between band warfare. As popu- 
lation density increases, the territory of that band-sized population of a 
few dozen would shrink to a small area, with more and more of life's 
necessities having to be obtained outside the area. For instance, one 
couldn't just divide Holland's 16,000 square miles and 16,000,000 people 
into 800,000 individual territories, each encompassing 13 acres and serv- 
ing as home to an autonomous band of 20 people who remained self- 
sufficient confined within their 13 acres, occasionally taking advantage of 


a temporary truce to come to the borders of their tiny territory in order to 
exchange some trade items and brides with the next band. Such spatial 
realities require that densely populated regions support large and com- 
plexly organized societies. 

Considerations of conflict resolution, decision making, economics, and 
space thus converge in requiring large societies to be centralized. But cen- 
tralization of power inevitably opens the door — for those who hold the 
power, are privy to information, make the decisions, and redistribute the 
goods — to exploit the resulting opportunities to reward themselves and 
their relatives. To anyone familiar with any modern grouping of people, 
that's obvious. As early societies developed, those acquiring centralized 
power gradually established themselves as an elite, perhaps originating as 
one of several formerly equal-ranked village clans that became "more 
equal" than the others. 

THOSE ARE THE reasons why large societies cannot function with band 
organization and instead are complex kleptocracies. But we are still left 
with the question of how small, simple societies actually evolve or amal- 
gamate into large, complex ones. Amalgamation, centralized conflict reso- 
lution, decision making, economic redistribution, and kleptocratic religion 
don't just develop automatically through a Rousseauesque social contract. 
What drives the amalgamation? 

In part, the answer depends upon evolutionary reasoning. I said at the 
outset of this chapter that societies classified in the same category are not 
all identical to each other, because humans and human groups are infi- 
nitely diverse. For example, among bands and tribes, the big-men of some 
are inevitably more charismatic, powerful, and skilled in reaching deci- 
sions than the big-men of others. Among large tribes, those with stronger 
big-men and hence greater centralization tend to have an advantage over 
those with less centralization. Tribes that resolve conflicts as poorly as did 
the Fayu tend to blow apart again into bands, while ill-governed chief- 
doms blow apart into smaller chiefdoms or tribes. Societies with effective 
conflict resolution, sound decision making, and harmonious economic 
redistribution can develop better technology, concentrate their military 
power, seize larger and more productive territories, and crush autonomous 
smaller societies one by one. 

Thus, competition between societies at one level of complexity tends to 


lead to societies on the next level of complexity if conditions permit. Tribes 
conquer or combine with tribes to reach the size of chiefdoms, which con- 
quer or combine with other chiefdoms to reach the size of states, which 
conquer or combine with other states to become empires. More generally, 
large units potentially enjoy an advantage over individual small units if — 
and that's a big "if" — the large units can solve the problems that come 
with their larger size, such as perennial threats from upstart claimants to 
leadership, commoner resentment of kleptocracy, and increased problems 
associated with economic integration. 

The amalgamation of smaller units into larger ones has often been doc- 
umented historically or archaeologically. Contrary to Rousseau, such 
amalgamations never occur by a process of unthreatened little societies 
freely deciding to merge, in order to promote the happiness of their citi- 
zens. Leaders of little societies, as of big ones, are jealous of their indepen- 
dence and prerogatives. Amalgamation occurs instead in either of two 
ways: by merger under the threat of external force, or by actual conquest. 
Innumerable examples are available to illustrate each mode of amalgam- 

Merger under the threat of external force is well illustrated by the for- 
mation of the Cherokee Indian confederation in the U.S. Southeast. The 
Cherokees were originally divided into 30 or 40 independent chiefdoms, 
each consisting of a village of about 400 people. Increasing white settle- 
ment led to conflicts between Cherokees and whites. When individual 
Cherokees robbed or assaulted white settlers and traders, the whites were 
unable to discriminate among the different Cherokee chiefdoms and retali- 
ated indiscriminately against any Cherokees, either by military action or 
by cutting off trade. In response, the Cherokee chiefdoms gradually found 
themselves compelled to join into a single confederacy in the course of the 
18th century. Initially, the larger chiefdoms in 1730 chose an overall 
leader, a chief named Moytoy, who was succeeded in 1741 by his son. The 
first task of these leaders was to punish individual Cherokees who attacked 
whites, and to deal with the white government. Around 1758 the Chero- 
kees regularized their decision making with an annual council modeled on 
previous village councils and meeting at one village (Echota), which 
thereby became a de facto "capital." Eventually, the Cherokees became 
literate (as we saw in Chapter 12) and adopted a written constitution. 

The Cherokee confederacy was thus formed not by conquest but by the 
amalgamation of previously jealous smaller entities, which merged only 


when threatened with destruction by powerful external forces. In much 
the same way, in an example of state formation described in every Ameri- 
can history textbook, the white American colonies themselves, one of 
which (Georgia) had precipitated the formation of the Cherokee state, 
were impelled to form a nation of their own when threatened with the 
powerful external force of the British monarchy. The American colonies 
were initially as jealous of their autonomy as the Cherokee chiefdoms, and 
their first attempt at amalgamation under the Articles of Confederation 
(1781) proved unworkable because it reserved too much autonomy to the 
ex-colonies. Only further threats, notably Shays's Rebellion of 1786 and 
the unsolved burden of war debt, overcame the ex-colonies' extreme reluc- 
tance to sacrifice autonomy and pushed them into adopting our current 
strong federal constitution in 1787. The 19th-century unification of Ger- 
many's jealous principalities proved equally difficult. Three early attempts 
(the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848, the restored German Confederation of 
1850, and the North German Confederation of 1866) failed before the 
external threat of France's declaration of war in 1870 finally led to the 
princelets' surrendering much of their power to a central imperial German 
government in 1871. 

The other mode of formation of complex societies, besides merger 
under threat of external force, is merger by conquest. A well-documented 
example is the origin of the Zulu state, in southeastern Africa. When first 
observed by white settlers, the Zulus were divided into dozens of little 
chiefdoms. During the late 1700s, as population pressure rose, fighting 
between the chiefdoms became increasingly intense. Among all those chief- 
doms, the ubiquitous problem of devising centralized power structures 
was solved most successfully by a chief called Dingiswayo, who gained 
ascendancy of the Mtetwa chiefdom by killing a rival around 1807. Din- 
giswayo developed a superior centralized military organization by drafting 
young men from all villages and grouping them into regiments by age 
rather than by their village. He also developed superior centralized politi- 
cal organization by abstaining from slaughter as he conquered other chief- 
doms, leaving the conquered chiefs family intact, and limiting himself to 
replacing the conquered chief himself with a relative willing to cooperate 
with Dingiswayo. He developed superior centralized conflict resolution by 
expanding the adjudication of quarrels. In that way Dingiswayo was able 
to conquer and begin the integration of 30 other Zulu chiefdoms. His sue- 


cessors strengthened the resulting embryonic Zulu state by expanding its 
judicial system, policing, and ceremonies. 

This Zulu example of a state formed by conquest can be multiplied 
almost indefinitely. Native states whose formation from chiefdoms hap- 
pened to be witnessed by Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries include 
the Polynesian Hawaiian state, the Polynesian Tahitian state, the Merina 
state of Madagascar, Lesotho and Swazi and other southern African states 
besides that of the Zulus, the Ashanti state of West Africa, and the Ankole 
and Buganda states of Uganda. The Aztec and Inca Empires were formed 
by 15th-century conquests, before Europeans arrived, but we know much 
about their formation from Indian oral histories transcribed by early Span- 
ish settlers. The formation of the Roman state and the expansion of the 
Macedonian Empire under Alexander were described in detail by contem- 
porary classical authors. 

All these examples illustrate that wars, or threats of war, have played a 
key role in most, if not all, amalgamations of societies. But wars, even 
between mere bands, have been a constant fact of human history. Why is 
it, then, that they evidently began causing amalgamations of societies only 
within the past 13,000 years? We had already concluded that the forma- 
tion of complex societies is somehow linked to population pressure, so we 
should now seek a link between population pressure and the outcome of 
war. Why should wars tend to cause amalgamations of societies when 
populations are dense but not when they are sparse? The answer is that the 
fate of defeated peoples depends on population density, with three possible 

Where population densities are very low, as is usual in regions occupied 
by hunter-gatherer bands, survivors of a defeated group need only move 
farther away from their enemies. That tends to be the result of wars 
between nomadic bands in New Guinea and the Amazon. 

Where population densities are moderate, as in regions occupied by 
food-producing tribes, no large vacant areas remain to which survivors of 
a defeated band can flee. But tribal societies without intensive food pro- 
duction have no employment for slaves and do not produce large enough 
food surpluses to be able to yield much tribute. Hence the victors have no 
use for survivors of a defeated tribe, unless to take the women in marriage. 
The defeated men are killed, and their territory may be occupied by the 


Where population densities are high, as in regions occupied by states or 
chiefdoms, the defeated still have nowhere to flee, but the victors now 
have two options for exploiting them while leaving them alive. Because 
chiefdoms and state societies have economic specialization, the defeated 
can be used as slaves, as commonly happened in biblical times. Alterna- 
tively, because many such societies have intensive food production systems 
capable of yielding large surpluses, the victors can leave the defeated in 
place but deprive them of political autonomy, make them pay regular trib- 
ute in food or goods, and amalgamate their society into the victorious state 
or chiefdom. This has been the usual outcome of battles associated with 
the founding of states or empires throughout recorded history. For exam- 
ple, the Spanish conquistadores wished to exact tribute from Mexico's 
defeated native populations, so they were very interested in the Aztec 
Empire's tribute lists. It turned out that the tribute received by the Aztecs 
each year from subject peoples had included 7,000 tons of corn, 4,000 
tons of beans, 4,000 tons of grain amaranth, 2,000,000 cotton cloaks, and 
huge quantities of cacao beans, war costumes, shields, feather headdresses, 
and amber. 

Thus, food production, and competition and diffusion between socie- 
ties, led as ultimate causes, via chains of causation that differed in detail 
but that all involved large dense populations and sedentary living, to the 
proximate agents of conquest: germs, writing, technology, and centralized 
political organization. Because those ultimate causes developed differently 
on different continents, so did those agents of conquest. Hence those 
agents tended to arise in association with each other, but the association 
was not strict: for example, an empire arose without writing among the 
Incas, and writing with few epidemic diseases among the Aztecs. Dingis-i 
wayo's Zulus illustrate that each of those agents contributed somewhat 
independently to history's pattern. Among the dozens of Zulu chiefdoms, 
the Mtetwa chiefdom enjoyed no advantage whatsoever of technology, 
writing, or germs over the other chiefdoms, which it nevertheless suc- 
ceeded in defeating. Its advantage lay solely in the spheres of government 
and ideology. The resulting Zulu state was thereby enabled to conquer a 
fraction of a continent for nearly a century. 





Australia one summer, we decided to visit a site with well- 
preserved Aboriginal rock paintings in the desert near the town of Men- 
indee. While I knew of the Australian desert's reputation for dryness and 
summer heat, I had already spent long periods working under hot, dry 
conditions in the Californian desert and New Guinea savanna, so I consid- 
ered myself experienced enough to deal with the minor challenges we 
would face as tourists in Australia. Carrying plenty of drinking water, 
Marie and I set off at noon on a hike of a few miles to the paintings. 

The trail from the ranger station led uphill, under a cloudless sky, 
through open terrain offering no shade whatsoever. The hot, dry air that 
we were breathing reminded me of how it had felt to breathe while sitting 
in a Finnish sauna. By the time we reached the cliff site with the paintings, 
we had finished our water. We had also lost our interest in art, so we 
pushed on uphill, breathing slowly and regularly. Presently I noticed a bird 
that was unmistakably a species of babbler, but it seemed enormous com- 
pared with any known babbler species. At that point, I realized that I was 
experiencing heat hallucinations for the first time in my life. Marie and I 
decided that we had better head straight back. 


Both of us stopped talking. As we walked, we concentrated on listening 
to our breathing, calculating the distance to the next landmark, and esti- 
mating the remaining time. My mouth and tongue were now dry, and 
Marie's face was red. When we at last reached the air-conditioned ranger 
station, we sagged into chairs next to the water cooler, drank down the 
cooler's last half-gallon of water, and asked the ranger for another bottle. 
Sitting there exhausted, both physically and emotionally, I reflected that 
the Aborigines who had made those paintings had somehow spent their 
entire lives in that desert without air-conditioned retreats, managing to 
find food as well as water. 

To white Australians, Menindee is famous as the base camp for two 
whites who had suffered worse from the desert's dry heat over a century 
earlier: the Irish policeman Robert Burke and the English astronomer Wil- 
liam Wills, ill-fated leaders of the first European expedition to cross Aus- 
tralia from south to north. Setting out with six camels packing food 
enough for three months, Burke and Wills ran out of provisions while in 
the desert north of Menindee. Three successive times, they encountered 
and were rescued by well-fed Aborigines whose home was that desert, and 
who plied the explorers with fish, fern cakes, and roasted fat rats. But then 
Burke foolishly shot his pistol at one of the Aborigines, whereupon the 
whole group fled. Despite their big advantage over the Aborigines in pos- 
sessing guns with which to hunt, Burke and Wills starved, collapsed, and 
died within a month after the Aborigines' departure. 

My wife's and my experience at Menindee, and the fate of Burke and 
Wills, made vivid for me the difficulties of building a human society in 
Australia. Australia stands out from all the other continents: the differ- 
ences between Eurasia, Africa, North America, and South America fade 
into insignificance compared with the differences between Australia and 
any of those other landmasses. Australia is by far the driest, smallest, flat- 
test, most infertile, climatically most unpredictable, and biologically most 
impoverished continent. It was the last continent to be occupied by Euro- 
peans. Until then, it had supported the most distinctive human societies, 
and the least numerous human population, of any continent. 

Australia thus provides a crucial test of theories about intercontinental 
differences in societies. It had the most distinctive environment, and also 
the most distinctive societies. Did the former cause the latter? If so, how? 
Australia is the logical continent with which to begin our around-the- 


world tour, applying the lessons of Parts 2 and 3 to understanding the 
differing histories of all the continents. 

MOST lay people would describe as the most salient feature of 
Native Australian societies their seeming "backwardness." Australia is the 
sole continent where, in modern times, all native peoples still lived without 
any of the hallmarks of so-called civilization — without farming, herding, 
metal, bows and arrows, substantial buildings, settled villages, writing, 
chiefdoms, or states. Instead, Australian Aborigines were nomadic or 
seminomadic hunter-gatherers, organized into bands, living in temporary 
shelters or huts, and still dependent on stone tools. During the last 13,000 
years less cultural change has accumulated in Australia than in any other 
continent. The prevalent European view of Native Australians was already 
typified by the words of an early French explorer, who wrote, "They are 
the most miserable people of the world, and the human beings who 
approach closest to brute beasts." 

Yet, as of 40,000 years ago, Native Australian societies enjoyed a big 
head start over societies of Europe and the other continents. Native Aus- 
tralians developed some of the earliest known stone tools with ground 
edges, the earliest hafted stone tools (that is, stone ax heads mounted on 
handles), and by far the earliest watercraft, in the world. Some of the old- 
est known painting on rock surfaces comes from Australia. Anatomically 
modern humans may have settled Australia before they settled western 
Europe. Why, despite that head start, did Europeans end up conquering 
Australia, rather than vice versa? 

Within that question lies another. During the Pleistocene Ice Ages, when 
much ocean water was sequestered in continental ice sheets and sea level 
dropped far below its present stand, the shallow Arafura Sea now separat- 
ing Australia from New Guinea was low, dry land. With the melting of ice 
sheets between around 12,000 and 8,000 years ago, sea level rose, that 
low land became flooded, and the former continent of Greater Australia 
became sundered into the two hemi-continents of Australia and New 
Guinea (Figure 15.1 on page 299). 

The human societies of those two formerly joined landmasses were in 
modern times very different from each other. In contrast to everything that 
I just said about Native Australians, most New Guineans, such as Yali's 


people, were farmers and swineherds. They lived in settled villages and 
were organized politically into tribes rather than bands. All New Guineans 
had bows and arrows, and many used pottery. New Guineans tended to 
have much more substantial dwellings, more seaworthy boats, and more 
numerous and more varied utensils than did Australians. As a consequence 
of being food producers instead of hunter-gatherers, New Guineans lived 
at much higher average population densities than Australians: New 
Guinea has only one-tenth of Australia's area but supported a native popu- 
lation several times that of Australia's. 

Why did the human societies of the larger landmass derived from Pleis- 
tocene Greater Australia remain so "backward" in their development, 
while the societies of the smaller landmass "advanced" much more rap- 
idly? Why didn't all those New Guinea innovations spread to Australia, 
which is separated from New Guinea by only 90 miles of sea at Torres 
Strait? From the perspective of cultural anthropology, the geographic dis- 
tance between Australia and New Guinea is even less than 90 miles, 
because Torres Strait is sprinkled with islands inhabited by farmers using 
bows and arrows and culturally resembling New Guineans. The largest 
Torres Strait island lies only 10 miles from Australia. Islanders carried on 
a lively trade with Native Australians as well as with New Guineans. How 
could two such different cultural universes maintain themselves across a 
calm strait only 10 miles wide and routinely traversed by canoes? 

Compared with Native Australians, New Guineans rate as culturally 
"advanced." But most other modern people consider even New Guineans 
"backward." Until Europeans began to colonize New Guinea in the late 
19th century, all New Guineans were nonliterate, dependent on stone 
tools, and politically not yet organized into states or (with few exceptions) 
chiefdoms. Granted that New Guineans had "progressed" beyond Native 
Australians, why had they not yet "progressed" as far as many Eurasians, 
Africans, and Native Americans? Thus, Yali's people and their Australian 
cousins pose a puzzle inside a puzzle. 

When asked to account for the cultural "backwardness" of Aboriginal 
Australian society, many white Australians have a simple answer: sup- 
posed deficiencies of the Aborigines themselves. In facial structure and skin 
color, Aborigines certainly look different from Europeans, leading some 
late- 19th century authors to consider them a missing link between apes 
and humans. How else can one account for the fact that white English 
colonists created a literate, food-producing, industrial democracy, within 

Asia; i and Australian continental shelves: 
limits of land during the Pleistocene 

Figure 15.1. Map of the region from Southeast Asia to Australia and 
New Guinea. Solid lines denote the present coastline; the dashed lines are 
the coastline during Pleistocene times when sea level dropped to below 
its present stand — that is, the edge of the Asian and Greater Australian 
shelves. At that time, New Guinea and Australia were joined in an 
expanded Greater Australia, while Borneo, Java, Sumatra, and Taiwan 
were part of the Asian mainland. 


a few decades of colonizing a continent whose inhabitants after more than 
40,000 years were still nonliterate hunter-gatherers? It is especially strik- 
ing that Australia has some of the world's richest iron and aluminum 
deposits, as well as rich reserves of copper, tin, lead, and zinc. Why, then, 
were Native Australians still ignorant of metal tools and living in the Stone 

It seems like a perfectiy controlled experiment in the evolution of 
human societies. The continent was the same; only the people were differ- 
ent. Ergo, the explanation for the differences between Native Australian 
and European- Australian societies must lie in the different people compos- 
ing them. The logic behind this racist conclusion appears compelling. We 
shall see, however, that it contains a simple error. 

As the first step in examining this logic, let us examine the origins of 
the peoples themselves. Australia and New Guinea were both occupied by 
at least 40,000 years ago, at a time when they were both still joined as 
Greater Australia. A glance at a map (Figure 15.1) suggests that the colo- 
nists must have originated ultimately from the nearest continent, Southeast 
Asia, by island hopping through the Indonesian Archipelago. This conclu- 
sion is supported by genetic relationships between modern Australians, 
New Guineans, and Asians, and by the survival today of a few populations 
of somewhat similar physical appearance in the Philippines, Malay Penin- 
sula, and Andaman Islands off Myanmar. 

Once the colonists had reached the shores of Greater Australia, they 
spread quickly over the whole continent to occupy even its farthest reaches 
and most inhospitable habitats. By 40,000 years ago, fossils and stone 
tools attest to their presence in Australia's southwestern corner; by 35,000 
years ago, in Australia's southeastern corner and Tasmania, the corner of 
Australia most remote from the colonists' likely beachhead in western Aus- 
tralia or New Guinea (the parts nearest Indonesia and Asia); and by 
30,000 years ago, in the cold New Guinea highlands. All of those areas 
could have been reached overland from a western beachhead. However, 
the colonization of both the Bismarck and the Solomon Archipelagoes 
northeast of New Guinea, by 35,000 years ago, required further overwater 
crossings of dozens of miles. The occupation could have been even more 
rapid than that apparent spread of dates from 40,000 to 30,000 years ago, 



since the various dates hardly differ within the experimental error of the 
radiocarbon method. 

At the Pleistocene times when Australia and New Guinea were initially 
occupied, the Asian continent extended eastward to incorporate the mod- 
ern islands of Borneo, Java, and Bali, nearly 1,000 miles nearer to Austra- 
lia and New Guinea than Southeast Asia's present margin. However, at 
least eight channels up to 50 miles wide still remained to be crossed in 
getting from Borneo or Bali to Pleistocene Greater Australia. Forty thou- 
sand years ago, those crossings may have been achieved by bamboo rafts, 
low-tech but seaworthy watercraft still in use in coastal South China 
today. The crossings must nevertheless have been difficult, because after 
that initial landfall by 40,000 years ago the archaeological record provides 
no compelling evidence of further human arrivals in Greater Australia 
from Asia for tens of thousands of years. Not until within the last few 
thousand years do we encounter the next firm evidence, in the form of the 
appearance of Asian-derived pigs in New Guinea and Asian-derived dogs 
in Australia. 

Thus, the human societies of Australia and New Guinea developed in 
substantial isolation from the Asian societies that founded them. That iso- 
lation is reflected in languages spoken today. After all those millennia of 
isolation, neither modern Aboriginal Australian languages nor the major 
group of modern New Guinea languages (the so-called Papuan languages) 
exhibit any clear relationships with any modern Asian languages. 

The isolation is also reflected in genes and physical anthropology. 
Genetic studies suggest that Aboriginal Australians and New Guinea high- 
landers are somewhat more similar to modern Asians than to peoples of 
other continents, but the relationship is not a close one. In skeletons and 
physical appearance, Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans are also 
distinct from most Southeast Asian populations, as becomes obvious if one 
compares photos of Australians or New Guineans with those of Indone- 
sians or Chinese. Part of the reason for all these differences is that the 
initial Asian colonists of Greater Australia have had a long time in which 
to diverge from their stay-at-home Asian cousins, with only limited genetic 
exchanges during most of that time. But probably a more important rea- 
son is that the original Southeast Asian stock from which the colonists of 
Greater Australia were derived has by now been largely replaced by other 
Asians expanding out of China. 


Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans have also diverged geneti- 
cally, physically, and linguistically from each other. For instance, among 
the major (genetically determined) human blood groups, groups B of the 
so-called ABO system and S of the MNS system occur in New Guinea as 
well as in most of the rest of the world, but both are virtually absent in 
Australia. The tightly coiled hair of most New Guineans contrasts with 
the straight or wavy hair of most Australians. Australian languages and 
New Guinea's Papuan languages are unrelated not only to Asian languages 
but also to each other, except for some spread of vocabulary in both direc- 
tions across Torres Strait. 

All that divergence of Australians and New Guineans from each other 
reflects lengthy isolation in very different environments. Since the rise of 
the Arafura Sea finally separated Australia and New Guinea from each 
other around 10,000 years ago, gene exchange has been limited to tenuous 
contact via the chain of Torres Strait islands. That has allowed the popula- 
tions of the two hemi-continents to adapt to their own environments. 
While the savannas and mangroves of coastal southern New Guinea are 
fairly similar to those of northern Australia, other habitats of the hemi- 
continents differ in almost all major respects. 

Here are some of the differences. New Guinea lies nearly on the equa- 
tor, while Australia extends far into the temperate zones, reaching almost 
40 degrees south of the equator. New Guinea is mountainous and 
extremely rugged, rising to 16,500 feet and with glaciers capping the high- 
est peaks, while Australia is mostiy low and fiat — 94 percent of its area 
lies below 2,000 feet of elevation. New Guinea is one of the wettest areas 
on Earth, Australia one of the driest. Most of New Guinea receives over 
100 inches of rain annually, and much of the highlands receives over 200 
inches, while most of Australia receives less than 20 inches. New Guinea's 
equatorial climate varies only modestly from season to season and year to 
year, but Australia's climate is highly seasonal and varies from year to year 
far more than that of any other continent. As a result, New Guinea is laced 
with permanent large rivers, while Australia's permanently flowing rivers 
are confined in most years to eastern Australia, and even Australia's largest 
river system (the Murray-Darling) has ceased flowing for months during 
droughts. Most of New Guinea's land area is clothed in dense rain forest, 
while most of Australia's supports only desert and open dry woodland. 

New Guinea is covered with young fertile soil, as a consequence of vol- 
canic activity, glaciers repeatedly advancing and retreating and scouring 



• 303 

the highlands, and mountain streams carrying huge quantities of silt to 
the lowlands. In contrast, Australia has by far the oldest, most infertile, 
most nutrient-leached soils of any continent, because of Australia's little 
volcanic activity and its lack of high mountains and glaciers. Despite hav- 
ing only one-tenth of Australia's area, New Guinea is home to approxi- 
mately as many mammal and bird species as is Australia — a result of New 
Guinea's equatorial location, much higher rainfall, much greater range of 
elevations, and greater fertility. All of those environmental differences 
influenced the two hemi-continents' very disparate cultural histories, 
which we shall now consider. 

the earliest and most intensive food production, and the densest 
populations, of Greater Australia arose in the highland valleys of New 
Guinea at altitudes between 4,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level. Archae- 
ological excavations uncovered complex systems of drainage ditches dat- 
ing back to 9,000 years ago and becoming extensive by 6,000 years ago, 
as well as terraces serving to retain soil moisture in drier areas. The ditch 
systems were similar to those still used today in the highlands to drain 
swampy areas for use as gardens. By around 5,000 years ago, pollen analy- 
ses testify to widespread deforestation of highland valleys, suggesting for- 
est clearance for agriculture. 

Today, the staple crops of highland agriculture are the recently intro- 
duced sweet potato, along with taro, bananas, yams, sugarcane, edible 
grass stems, and several leafy vegetables. Because taro, bananas, and yams 
are native to Southeast Asia, an undoubted site of plant domestication, it 
used to be assumed that New Guinea highland crops other than sweet 
potatoes arrived from Asia. However, it was eventually realized that the 
wild ancestors of sugarcane, the leafy vegetables, and the edible grass 
stems are New Guinea species, that the particular types of bananas grown 
in New Guinea have New Guinea rather than Asian wild ancestors, and 
that taro and some yams are native to New Guinea as well as to Asia. If 
New Guinea agriculture had really had Asian origins, one might have 
expected to find highland crops derived unequivocally from Asia, but there 
are none. For those reasons it is now generally acknowledged that agricul- 
ture arose indigenously in the New Guinea highlands by domestication of 
New Guinea wild plant species. 

New Guinea thus joins the Fertile Crescent, China, and a few other 


regions as one of the world's centers of independent origins of plant 
domestication. No remains of the crops actually being grown in the high- 
lands 6,000 years ago have been preserved in archaeological sites. How- 
ever, that is not surprising, because modern highland staple crops are plant 
species that do not leave archaeologically visible residues except under 
exceptional conditions. Hence it seems likely that some of them were also 
the founding crops of highland agriculture, especially as the ancient drain- 
age systems preserved are so similar to the modern drainage systems used 
for growing taro. 

The three unequivocally foreign elements in New Guinea highland food 
production as seen by the first European explorers were chickens, pigs, 
and sweet potatoes. Chickens and pigs were domesticated in Southeast 
Asia and introduced around 3,600 years ago to New Guinea and most 
other Pacific islands by Austronesians, a people of ultimately South Chi- 
nese origin whom we shall discuss in Chapter 17. (Pigs may have arrived 
earlier.) As for the sweet potato, native to South America, it apparently 
reached New Guinea only within the last few centuries, following its intro- 
duction to the Philippines by Spaniards. Once established in New Guinea, 
the sweet potato overtook taro as the highland's leading crop, because of 
its shorter time required to reach maturity, higher yields per acre, and 
greater tolerance of poor soil conditions. 

The development of New Guinea highland agriculture must have trig- 
gered a big population explosion thousands of years ago, because the high- 
lands could have supported only very low population densities of hunter- 
gatherers after New Guinea's original megafauna of giant marsupials had 
been exterminated. The arrival of the sweet potato triggered a further 
explosion in recent centuries. When Europeans first flew over the high- 
lands in the 1930s, they were astonished to see below them a landscape 
similar to Holland's. Broad valleys were completely deforested and dotted 
with villages, and drained and fenced fields for intensive food production 
covered entire valley floors. That landscape testifies to the population den- 
sities achieved in the highlands by farmers with stone tools. 

Steep terrain, persistent cloud cover, malaria, and risk of drought at 
lower elevations confine New Guinea highland agriculture to elevations 
above about 4,000 feet. In effect, the New Guinea highlands are an island 
of dense fanning populations thrust up into the sky and surrounded below 
by a sea of clouds. Lowland New Guineans on the seacoast and rivers are 
villagers depending heavily on fish, while those on dry ground away from 


the coast and rivers subsist at low densities by slash-and-burn agriculture 
based on bananas and yams, supplemented by hunting and gathering. In 
contrast, lowland New Guinea swamp dwellers live as nomadic hunter- 
gatherers dependent on the starchy pith of wild sago palms, which are very 
productive and yield three times more calories per hour of work than does 
gardening. New Guinea swamps thus provide a clear instance of an envi- 
ronment where people remained hunter-gatherers because farming could 
not compete with the hunting-gathering lifestyle. 

The sago eaters persisting in lowland swamps exemplify the nomadic 
hunter-gatherer band organization that must formerly have characterized 
all New Guineans. For all the reasons that we discussed in Chapters 13 
and 14, the farmers and the fishing peoples were the ones to develop more- 
complex technology, societies, and political organization. They live in per- 
manent villages and tribal societies, often led by a big-man. Some of them 
construct large, elaborately decorated, ceremonial houses. Their great art, 
in the form of wooden statues and masks, is prized in museums around 
the world. 

NEW GUINEA THUS became the part of Greater Australia with the 
most-advanced technology, social and political organization, and art. 
However, from an urban American or European perspective, New Guinea 
still rates as "primitive" rather than "advanced." Why did New Guineans 
continue to use stone tools instead of developing metal tools, remain non- 
literate, and fail to organize themselves into chiefdoms and states? It 
turns out that New Guinea had several biological and geographic strikes 
against it. 

First, although indigenous food production did arise in the New Guinea 
highlands, we saw in Chapter 8 that it yielded little protein. The dietary 
staples were low-protein root crops, and production of the sole domesti- 
cated animal species (pigs and chickens) was too low to contribute much 
to people's protein budgets. Since neither pigs nor chickens can be har- 
nessed to pull carts, highlanders remained without sources of power other 
than human muscle power, and also failed to evolve epidemic diseases to 
repel the eventual European invaders. 

A second restriction on the size of highland populations was the limited 
available area: the New Guinea highlands have only a few broad valleys, 
notably the Wahgi and Baliem Valleys, capable of supporting dense popu- 


lations. Still a third limitation was the reality that the mid-montane zone 
between 4,000 and 9,000 feet was the sole altitudinal zone in New Guinea 
suitable for intensive food production. There was no food production at 
all in New Guinea alpine habitats above 9,000 feet, little on the hillslopes 
between 4,000 and 1,000 feet, and only low-density slash-and-burn agri- 
culture in the lowlands. Thus, large-scale economic exchanges of food, 
between communities at different altitudes specializing in different types 
of food production, never developed in New Guinea. Such exchanges in 
the Andes, Alps, and Himalayas not only increased population densities in 
those areas, by providing people at all altitudes with a more balanced diet, 
but also promoted regional economic and political integration. 

For all these reasons, the population of traditional New Guinea never 
exceeded 1,000,000 until European colonial governments brought West- 
ern medicine and the end of intertribal warfare. Of the approximately nine 
world centers of agricultural origins that we discussed in Chapter 5, New 
Guinea remained the one with by far the smallest population. With a mere 
1,000,000 people, New Guinea could not develop the technology, writing, 
and political systems that arose among populations of tens of millions in 
China, the Fertile Crescent, the Andes, and Mesoamerica. 

New Guinea's population is not only small in aggregate, but also frag- 
mented into thousands of micropopulations by the rugged terrain: swamps 
in much of the lowlands, steep-sided ridges and narrow canyons alternat- 
ing with each other in the highlands, and dense jungle swathing both the 
lowlands and the highlands. When I am engaged in biological exploration 
in New Guinea, with teams of New Guineans as field assistants, I consider 
excellent progress to be three miles per day even if we are traveling over 
existing trails. Most highlanders in traditional New Guinea never went 
more than 10 miles from home in the course of their lives. 

Those difficulties of terrain, combined with the state of intermittent 
warfare that characterized relations between New Guinea bands or vil- 
lages, account for traditional New Guinea's linguistic, cultural, and politi- 
cal fragmentation. New Guinea has by far the highest concentration of 
languages in the world: 1,000 out of the world's 6,000 languages, 
crammed into an area only slightly larger than that of Texas, and divided 
into dozens of language families and isolated languages as different from 
each other as English is from Chinese. Nearly half of all New Guinea lan- 
guages have fewer than 500 speakers, and even the largest language groups 
(still with a mere 100,000 speakers) were politically fragmented into hun- 


dreds of villages, fighting as fiercely with each other as with speakers of 
other languages. Each of those microsocieties alone was far too small to 
support chiefs and craft specialists, or to develop metallurgy and writing. 

Besides a small and fragmented population, the other limitation on 
development in New Guinea was geographic isolation, restricting the 
inflow of technology and ideas from elsewhere. New Guinea's three neigh- 
bors were all separated from New Guinea by water gaps, and until a few 
thousand years ago they were all even less advanced than New Guinea 
(especially the New Guinea highlands) in technology and food production. 
Of those three neighbors, Aboriginal Australians remained hunter-gather- 
ers with almost nothing to offer New Guineans that New Guineans did 
not already possess. New Guinea's second neighbor was the much smaller 
islands of the Bismarck and the Solomon Archipelagoes to the east. That 
left, as New Guinea's third neighbor, the islands of eastern Indonesia. But 
that area, too, remained a cultural backwater occupied by hunter-gather- 
ers for most of its history. There is no item that can be identified as having 
reached New Guinea via Indonesia, after the initial colonization of New 
Guinea over 40,000 years ago, until the time of the Austronesian expan- 
sion around 1600 B.C. 

With that expansion, Indonesia became occupied by food producers of 
Asian origins, with domestic animals, with agriculture and technology at 
least as complex as New Guinea's, and with navigational skills that served 
as a much more efficient conduit from Asia to New Guinea. Austronesians 
settled on islands west and north and east of New Guinea, and in the far 
west and on the north and southeast coasts of New Guinea itself. Aus- 
tronesians introduced pottery, chickens, and probably dogs and pigs to 
New Guinea. (Early archaeological surveys claimed pig bones in the New 
Guinea highlands by 4000 B.C., but those claims have not been confirmed.) 
For at least the last thousand years, trade connected New Guinea to the 
technologically much more advanced societies of Java and China. In return 
for exporting bird of paradise plumes and spices, New Guineans received 
Southeast Asian goods, including even such luxury items as Dong Son 
bronze drums and Chinese porcelain. 

With time, the Austronesian expansion would surely have had more 
impact on New Guinea. Western New Guinea would eventually have been 
incorporated politically into the sultanates of eastern Indonesia, and metal 
tools might have spread through eastern Indonesia to New Guinea. But — 
that hadn't happened by A.D. 151 1, the year the Portuguese arrived in the 

308 • 


Moluccas and truncated Indonesia's separate train of developments. When 
Europeans reached New Guinea soon thereafter, its inhabitants were still 
living in bands or in fiercely independent little villages, and still using stone 

WHILE THE NEW Guinea hemi-continent of Greater Australia thus 
developed both animal husbandry and agriculture, the Australian hemi-i 
continent developed neither. During the Ice Ages Australia had supported 
even more big marsupials than New Guinea, including diprotodonts (the 
marsupial equivalent of cows and rhinoceroses), giant kangaroos, and 
giant wombats. But all those marsupial candidates for animal husbandry 
disappeared in the wave of extinctions (or exterminations) that accompa- 
nied human colonization of Australia. That left Australia, like New 
Guinea, with no domesticable native mammals. The sole foreign domesti- 
cated mammal adopted in Australia was the dog, which arrived from Asia 
(presumably in Austronesian canoes) around 1500 B.C. and established 
itself in the wild in Australia to become the dingo. Native Australians kept 
captive dingos as companions, watchdogs, and even as living blankets, 
giving rise to the expression "five-dog night" to mean a very cold night. 
But they did not use dingos / dogs for food, as did Polynesians, or for coop- 
erative hunting of wild animals, as did New Guineans. 

Agriculture was another nonstarter in Australia, which is not only the 
driest continent but also the one with the most infertile soils. In addition, 
Australia is unique in that the overwhelming influence on climate over 
most of the continent is an irregular nonannual cycle, the ENSO (acronym 
for El Nino Southern Oscillation), rather than the regular annual cycle of 
the seasons so familiar in most other parts of the world. Unpredictable 
severe droughts last for years, punctuated by equally unpredictable torren- 
tial rains and floods. Even today, with Eurasian crops and with trucks and 
railroads to transport produce, food production in Australia remains a 
risky business. Herds build up in good years, only to be killed off by 
drought. Any incipient farmers in Aboriginal Australia would have faced 
similar cycles in their own populations. If in good years they had settled 
in villages, grown crops, and produced babies, those large populations 
would have starved and died off in drought years, when the land could 
support far fewer people. 

The other major obstacle to the development of food production in 


3 09 

Australia was the paucity of domesticable wild plants. Even modern Euro- 
pean plant geneticists have failed to develop any crop except macadamia 
nuts from Australia's native wild flora. The list of the world's potential 
prize cereals — the 56 wild grass species with the heaviest grains — includes 
only two Australian species, both of which rank near the bottom of the 
list (grain weight only 13 milligrams, compared with a whopping 40 milli- 
grams for the heaviest grains elsewhere in the world). That's not to say 
that Australia had no potential crops at all, or that Aboriginal Australians 
would never have developed indigenous food production. Some plants, 
such as certain species of yams, taro, and arrowroot, are cultivated in 
southern New Guinea but also grow wild in northern Australia and were 
gathered by Aborigines there. As we shall see, Aborigines in the climati- 
cally most favorable areas of Australia were evolving in a direction that 
might have eventuated in food production. But any food production that 
did arise indigenously in Australia would have been limited by the lack of 
domesticable animals, the poverty of domesticable plants, and the difficult 
soils and climate. 

Nomadism, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and minimal investment in 
shelter and possessions were sensible adaptations to Australia's ENSO- 
driven resource unpredictability. When local conditions deteriorated, Abo- 
rigines simply moved to an area where conditions were temporarily better. 
Rather than depending on just a few crops that could fail, they minimized 
risk by developing an economy based on a great variety of wild foods, not 
all of which were likely to fail simultaneously. Instead of having fluctuating 
populations that periodically outran their resources and starved, they 
maintained smaller populations that enjoyed an abundance of food in 
good years and a sufficiency in bad years. 

The Aboriginal Australian substitute for food production has been 
termed "firestick farming." The Aborigines modified and managed the sur- 
rounding landscape in ways that increased its production of edible plants 
and animals, without resorting to cultivation. In particular, they intention- 
ally burned much of the landscape periodically. That served several pur- 
poses: the fires drove out animals that could be killed and eaten 
immediately; fires converted dense thickets into open parkland in which 
people could travel more easily; the parkland was also an ideal habitat for 
kangaroos, Australia's prime game animal; and the fires stimulated the 
growth both of new grass on which kangaroos fed and of fern roots on 
which Aborigines themselves fed. 


We think of Australian Aborigines as desert people, but most of them 
were not. Instead, their population densities varied with rainfall (because 
it controls the production of terrestrial wild plant and animal foods) and 
with abundance of aquatic foods in the sea, rivers, and lakes. The highest 
population densities of Aborigines were in Australia's wettest and most 
productive regions: the Murray-Darling river system of the Southeast, the 
eastern and northern coasts, and the southwestern corner. Those areas 
also came to support the densest populations of European settlers in mod- 
ern Australia. The reason we think of Aborigines as desert people is simply 
that Europeans killed or drove them out of the most desirable areas, leav- 
ing the last intact Aboriginal populations only in areas that Europeans 
didn't want. 

Within the last 5,000 years, some of those productive regions witnessed 
an intensification of Aboriginal food-gathering methods, and a buildup 
of Aboriginal population density. Techniques were developed in eastern 
Australia for rendering abundant and starchy, but extremely poisonous, 
cycad seeds edible, by leaching out or fermenting the poison. The pre- 
viously unexploited highlands of southeastern Australia began to be vis- 
ited regularly during the summer, by Aborigines feasting not only on cycad 
nuts and yams but also on huge hibernating aggregations of a migratory 
moth called the bogong moth, which tastes like a roasted chestnut when 
grilled. Another type of intensified food-gathering activity that developed 
was the freshwater eel fisheries of the Murray-Darling river system, where 
water levels in marshes fluctuate with seasonal rains. Native Australians 
constructed elaborate systems of canals up to a mile and a half long, in 
order to enable eels to extend their range from one marsh to another. Eels 
were caught by equally elaborate weirs, traps set in dead-end side canals, 
and stone walls across canals with a net placed in an opening of the wall. 
Traps at different levels in the marsh came into operation as the water 
level rose and fell. While the initial construction of those "fish farms" must 
have involved a lot of work, they then fed many people. Nineteenth-cen- 
tury European observers found villages of a dozen Aboriginal houses at 
the eel farms, and there are archaeological remains of villages of up to 146 
stone houses, implying at least seasonally resident populations of hundreds 
of people. 

Still another development in eastern and northern Australia was the 
harvesting of seeds of a wild millet, belonging to the same genus as the 
broomcorn millet that was a staple of early Chinese agriculture. The millet 



• 311 

was reaped with stone knives, piled into haystacks, and threshed to obtain 
the seeds, which were then stored in skin bags or wooden dishes and finally 
ground with millstones. Several of the tools used in this process, such as 
the stone reaping knives and grindstones, were similar to the tools inde- 
pendently invented in the Fertile Crescent for processing seeds of other 
wild grasses. Of all the food-acquiring methods of Aboriginal Australians, 
millet harvesting is perhaps the one most likely to have evolved eventually 
into crop production. 

Along with intensified food gathering in the last 5,000 years came new 
types of tools. Small stone blades and points provided more length of 
sharp edge per pound of tool than the large stone tools they replaced. 
Hatchets with ground stone edges, once present only locally in Australia, 
became widespread. Shell fishhooks appeared within the last thousand 

WHY did Australia not develop metal tools, writing, and politically 
complex societies? A major reason is that Aborigines remained hunter- 
gatherers, whereas, as we saw in Chapters 12-14, those developments 
arose elsewhere only in populous and economically specialized societies 
of food producers. In addition, Australia's aridity, infertility, and climatic 
unpredictability limited its hunter-gatherer population to only a few hun- 
dred thousand people. Compared with the tens of millions of people in 
ancient China or Mesoamerica, that meant that Australia had far fewer 
potential inventors, and far fewer societies to experiment with adopting 
innovations. Nor were its several hundred thousand people organized into 
closely interacting societies. Aboriginal Australia instead consisted of a sea 
of very sparsely populated desert separating several more productive eco- 
logical "islands," each of them holding only a fraction of the continent's 
population and with interactions attenuated by the intervening distance. 
Even within the relatively moist and productive eastern side of the conti- 
nent, exchanges between societies were limited by the 1,900 miles from 
Queensland's tropical rain forests in the northeast to Victoria's temperate 
rain forests in the southeast, a geographic and ecological distance as great 
as that from Los Angeles to Alaska. 

Some apparent regional or continentwide regressions of technology in 
Australia may stem from the isolation and relatively few inhabitants of 
its population centers. The boomerang, that quintessential Australian 


weapon, was abandoned in the Cape York Peninsula of northeastern Aus- 
tralia. When encountered by Europeans, the Aborigines of southwestern 
Australia did not eat shellfish. The function of the small stone points that 
appear in Australian archaeological sites around 5,000 years ago remains 
uncertain: while an easy explanation is that they may have been used as 
spearpoints and barbs, they are suspiciously similar to the stone points 
and barbs used on arrows elsewhere in the world. If they really were so 
used, the mystery of bows and arrows being present in modern New 
Guinea but absent in Australia might be compounded: perhaps bows and 
arrows actually were adopted for a while, then abandoned, across the Aus- 
tralian continent. All these examples remind us of the abandonment of 
guns in Japan, of bows and arrows and pottery in most of Polynesia, and 
of other technologies in other isolated societies (Chapter 13). 

The most extreme losses of technology in the Australian region took 
place on the island of Tasmania, 130 miles off the coast of southeastern 
Australia. At Pleistocene times of low sea level, the shallow Bass Strait 
now separating Tasmania from Australia was dry land, and the people 
occupying Tasmania were part of the human population distributed con- 
tinuously over an expanded Australian continent. When the strait was at 
last flooded around 10,000 years ago, Tasmanians and mainland Austra- 
lians became cut off from each other because neither group possessed 
watercraft capable of negotiating Bass Strait. Thereafter, Tasmania's popu- 
lation of 4,000 hunter-gatherers remained out of contact with all other 
humans on Earth, living in an isolation otherwise known only from science 
fiction novels. 

When finally encountered by Europeans in A.D. 1642, the Tasmanians 
had the simplest material culture of any people in the modern world. Like 
mainland Aborigines, they were hunter-gatherers without metal tools. But 
they also lacked many technologies and artifacts widespread on the main- 
land, including barbed spears, bone tools of any type, boomerangs, ground 
or polished stone tools, hafted stone tools, hooks, nets, pronged spears, 
traps, and the practices of catching and eating fish, sewing, and starting a 
fire. Some of these technologies may have arrived or been invented in 
mainland Australia only after Tasmania became isolated, in which case we 
can conclude that the tiny Tasmanian population did not independently 
invent these technologies for itself. Others of these technologies were 
brought to Tasmania when it was still part of the Australian mainland, 
and were subsequently lost in Tasmania's cultural isolation. For example, 


the Tasmanian archaeological record documents the disappearance of 
fishing, and of awls, needles, and other bone tools, around 1500 B.C. On 
at least three smaller islands (Flinders, Kangaroo, and King) that were iso- 
lated from Australia or Tasmania by rising sea levels around 10,000 years 
ago, human populations that would initially have numbered around 200 
to 400 died out completely. 

Tasmania and those three smaller islands thus illustrate in extreme form 
a conclusion of broad potential significance for world history. Human 
populations of only a few hundred people were unable to survive indefi- 
nitely in complete isolation. A population of 4,000 was able to survive for 
10,000 years, but with significant cultural losses and significant failures to 
invent, leaving it with a uniquely simplified material culture. Mainland 
Australia's 300,000 hunter-gatherers were more numerous and less iso- 
lated than the Tasmanians but still constituted the smallest and most iso- 
lated human population of any of the continents. The documented 
instances of technological regression on the Australian mainland, and the 
example of Tasmania, suggest that the limited repertoire of Native Austra- 
lians compared with that of peoples of other continents may stem in part 
from the effects of isolation and population size on the development and 
maintenance of technology — like those effects on Tasmania, but less 
extreme. By implication, the same effects may have contributed to differ- 
ences in technology between the largest continent (Eurasia) and the next 
smaller ones (Africa, North America, and South America). 

WHY DIDN'T MORE-ADVANCED technology reach Australia from its 
neighbors, Indonesia and New Guinea? As regards Indonesia, it was sepa- 
rated from northwestern Australia by water and was very different from it 
ecologically. In addition, Indonesia itself was a cultural and technological 
backwater until a few thousand years ago. There is no evidence of any 
new technology or introduction reaching Australia from Indonesia, after 
Australia's initial colonization 40,000 years ago, until the dingo appeared 
around 1500 B.C. 

The dingo reached Australia at the peak of the Austronesian expansion 
from South China through Indonesia. Austronesians succeeded in settling 
all the islands of Indonesia, including the two closest to Australia — Timor 
and Tanimbar (only 275 and 205 miles from modern Australia, respec- 
tively). Since Austronesians covered far greater sea distances in the course 

3 1 4 


of their expansion across the Pacific, we would have to assume that they 
repeatedly reached Australia, even if we did not have the evidence of the 
dingo to prove it. In historical times northwestern Australia was visited 
each year by sailing canoes from the Macassar district on the Indonesian 
island of Sulawesi (Celebes), until the Australian government stopped the 
visits in 1907. Archaeological evidence traces the visits back until around 
A.D. 1000, and they may well have been going on earlier. The main pur- 
pose of the visits was to obtain sea cucumbers (also known as beche-de- 
mer or trepang), starfish relatives exported from Macassar to China as a 
reputed aphrodisiac and prized ingredient of soups. 

Naturally, the trade that developed during the Macassans' annual visits 
left many legacies in northwestern Australia. The Macassans planted tam- 
arind trees at their coastal campsites and sired children by Aboriginal 
women. Cloth, metal tools, pottery, and glass were brought as trade goods, 
though Aborigines never learned to manufacture those items themselves. 
Aborigines did acquire from the Macassans some loan words, some cere- 
monies, and the practices of using dugout sailing canoes and smoking 
tobacco in pipes. 

But none of these influences altered the basic character of Australian 
society. More important than what happened as a result of the Macassan 
visits is what did not happen. The Macassans did not settle in Australia — 
undoubtedly because the area of northwestern Australia facing Indonesia 
is much too dry for Macassan agriculture. Had Indonesia faced the tropi- 
cal rain forests and savannas of northeastern Australia, the Macassans 
could have settled, but there is no evidence that they ever traveled that far. 
Since the Macassans thus came only in small numbers and for temporary 
visits and never penetrated inland, just a few groups of Australians on a 
small stretch of coast were exposed to them. Even those few Australians 
got to see only a fraction of Macassan culture and technology, rather 
than a full Macassan society with rice fields, pigs, villages, and work- 
shops. Because the Australians remained nomadic hunter-gatherers, they 
acquired only those few Macassan products and practices compatible with 
their lifestyle. Dugout sailing canoes and pipes, yes; forges and pigs, no. 

Apparently much more astonishing than Australians' resistance to Indo- 
nesian influence is their resistance to New Guinea influence. Across the 
narrow ribbon of water known as Torres Strait, New Guinea farmers who 
spoke New Guinea languages and had pigs, pottery, and bows and arrows 
faced Australian hunter-gatherers who spoke Australian languages and 


lacked pigs, pottery, and bows and arrows. Furthermore, the strait is not 
an open-water barrier but is dotted with a chain of islands, of which the 
largest (Muralug Island) lies only 10 miles from the Australian coast. 
There were regular trading visits between Australia and the islands, and 
between the islands and New Guinea. Many Aboriginal women came as 
wives to Muralug Island, where they saw gardens and bows and arrows. 
How was it that those New Guinea traits did not get transmitted to Aus- 

This cultural barrier at Torres Strait is astonishing only because we may 
mislead ourselves into picturing a full-fledged New Guinea society with 
intensive agriculture and pigs 10 miles off the Australian coast. In reality, 
Cape York Aborigines never saw a mainland New Guinean. Instead, there 
was trade between New Guinea and the islands nearest New Guinea, then 
between those islands and Mabuiag Island halfway down the strait, 
then between Mabuiag Island and Badu Island farther down the strait, 
then between Badu Island and Muralug Island, and finally between 
Muralug and Cape York. 

New Guinea society became attenuated along that island chain. Pigs 
were rare or absent on the islands. Lowland South New Guineans along 
Torres Strait practiced not the intensive agriculture of the New Guinea 
highlands but a slash-and-burn agriculture with heavy reliance on sea- 
foods, hunting, and gathering. The importance of even those slash-and- 
burn practices decreased from southern New Guinea toward Australia 
along the island chain. Muralug Island itself, the island nearest Australia, 
was dry, marginal for agriculture, and supported only a small human pop- 
ulation, which subsisted mainly on seafood, wild yams, and mangrove 

The interface between New Guinea and Australia across Torres Strait 
was thus reminiscent of the children's game of telephone, in which children 
sit in a circle, one child whispers a word into the ear of the second child, 
who whispers what she thinks she has just heard to the third child, and 
the word finally whispered by the last child back to the first child bears no 
resemblance to the initial word. In the same way, trade along the Torres 
Strait islands was a telephone game that finally presented Cape York Abo- 
rigines with something very different from New Guinea society. In addi- 
tion, we should not imagine that relations between Muralug Islanders and 
Cape York Aborigines were an uninterrupted love feast at which Aborigi- 
nes eagerly sopped up culture from island teachers. Trade instead alter- 


nated with war for the purposes of head-hunting and capturing women to 
become wives. 

Despite the dilution of New Guinea culture by distance and war, some 
New Guinea influence did manage to reach Australia. Intermarriage car- 
ried New Guinea physical features, such as coiled rather than straight hair, 
down the Cape York Peninsula. Four Cape York languages had phonemes 
unusual for Australia, possibly because of the influence of New Guinea 
languages. The most important transmissions were of New Guinea shell 
fishhooks, which spread far into Australia, and of New Guinea outrigger 
canoes, which spread down the Cape York Peninsula. New Guinea drums, 
ceremonial masks, funeral posts, and pipes were also adopted on Cape 
York. But Cape York Aborigines did not adopt agriculture, in part because 
what they saw of it on Muralug Island was so watered-down. They did 
not adopt pigs, of which there were few or none on the islands, and which 
they would in any case have been unable to feed without agriculture. Nor 
did they adopt bows and arrows, remaining instead with their spears and 

Australia is big, and so is New Guinea. But contact between those two 
big landmasses was restricted to those few small groups of Torres Strait 
islanders with a highly attenuated New Guinea culture, interacting with 
those few small groups of Cape York Aborigines. The latter groups' deci- 
sions, for whatever reason, to use spears rather than bows and arrows, 
and not to adopt certain other features of the diluted New Guinea culture 
they saw, blocked transmission of those New Guinea cultural traits to all 
the rest of Australia. As a result, no New Guinea trait except shell fish- 
hooks spread far into Australia. If the hundreds of thousands of farmers 
in the cool New Guinea highlands had been in close contact with the Abo- 
rigines in the cool highlands of southeastern Australia, a massive transfer 
of intensive food production and New Guinea culture to Australia might 
have followed. But the New Guinea highlands are separated from the Aus- 
tralian highlands by 2,000 miles of ecologically very different landscape. 
The New Guinea highlands might as well have been the mountains of the 
moon, as far as Australians' chances of observing and adopting New 
Guinea highland practices were concerned. 

In short, the persistence of Stone Age nomadic hunter-gatherers in Aus- 
tralia, trading with Stone Age New Guinea farmers and Iron Age Indone- 
sian farmers, at first seems to suggest singular obstinacy on the part of 
Native Australians. On closer examination, it merely proves to reflect the 


3 1 7 

ubiquitous role of geography in the transmission of human culture and 

it remains for us to consider the encounters of New Guinea's and 
Australia's Stone Age societies with Iron Age Europeans. A Portuguese 
navigator "discovered" New Guinea in 1526, Holland claimed the west- 
ern half in 1828, and Britain and Germany divided the eastern half in 
1884. The first Europeans settled on the coast, and it took them a long 
time to penetrate into the interior, but by 1960 European governments 
had established political control over most New Guineans. 

The reasons that Europeans colonized New Guinea, rather than vice 
versa, are obvious. Europeans were the ones who had the oceangoing ships 
and compasses to travel to New Guinea; the writing systems and printing 
presses to produce maps, descriptive accounts, and administrative 
paperwork useful in establishing control over New Guinea; the political 
institutions to organize the ships, soldiers, and administration; and the 
guns to shoot New Guineans who resisted with bow and arrow and clubs. 
Yet the number of European settlers was always very small, and today 
New Guinea is still populated largely by New Guineans. That contrasts 
sharply with the situation in Australia, the Americas, and South Africa, 
where European settlement was numerous and lasting and replaced the 
original native population over large areas. Why was New Guinea dif- 

A major factor was the one that defeated all European attempts to settle 
the New Guinea lowlands until the 1880s: malaria and other tropical dis- 
eases, none of them an acute epidemic crowd infection as discussed in 
Chapter 1 1. The most ambitious of those failed lowland settlement plans, 
organized by the French marquis de Rays around 1880 on the nearby 
island of New Ireland, ended with 930 out of the 1,000 colonists dead 
within three years. Even with modern medical treatments available today, 
many of my American and European friends in New Guinea have been 
forced to leave because of malaria, hepatitis, or other diseases, while my 
own health legacy of New Guinea has been a year of malaria and a year 
of dysentery. 

As Europeans were being felled by New Guinea lowland germs, why 
were Eurasian germs not simultaneously felling New Guineans? Some 
New Guineans did become infected, but not on the massive scale that 


killed off most of the native peoples of Australia and the Americas. One 
lucky break for New Guineans was that there were no permanent Euro- 
pean settlements in New Guinea until the 1880s, by which time public 
health discoveries had made progress in bringing smallpox and other infec- 
tious diseases of European populations under control. In addition, the 
Austronesian expansion had already been bringing a stream of Indonesian 
settlers and traders to New Guinea for 3,500 years. Since Asian mainland 
infectious diseases were well established in Indonesia, New Guineans 
thereby gained long exposure and built up much more resistance to Eur- 
asian germs than did Aboriginal Australians. 

The sole part of New Guinea where Europeans do not suffer from 
severe health problems is the highlands, above the altitudinal ceiling for 
malaria. But the highlands, already occupied by dense populations of New 
Guineans, were not reached by Europeans until the 1930s. By then, the 
Australian and Dutch colonial governments were no longer willing to open 
up lands for white settlement by killing native people in large numbers or 
driving them off their lands, as had happened during earlier centuries of 
European colonialism. 

The remaining obstacle to European would-be settlers was that Euro- 
pean crops, livestock, and subsistence methods do poorly everywhere in 
the New Guinea environment and climate. While introduced tropical 
American crops such as squash, corn, and tomatoes are now grown in 
small quantities, and tea and coffee plantations have been established in 
the highlands of Papua New Guinea, staple European crops, like wheat, 
barley, and peas, have never taken hold. Introduced cattle and goats, kept 
in small numbers, suffer from tropical diseases, just as do European people 
themselves. Food production in New Guinea is still dominated by the 
crops and agricultural methods that New Guineans perfected over the 
course of thousands of years. 

All those problems of disease, rugged terrain, and subsistence contrib- 
uted to Europeans' leaving eastern New Guinea (now the independent 
nation of Papua New Guinea) occupied and governed by New Guineans, 
who nevertheless use English as their official language, write with the 
alphabet, live under democratic governmental institutions modeled on 
those of England, and use guns manufactured overseas. The outcome was 
different in western New Guinea, which Indonesia took over from Hol- 
land in 1963 and renamed Irian J ay a province. The province is now gov- 
erned by Indonesians, for Indonesians. Its rural population is still 



overwhelmingly New Guinean, but its urban population is Indonesian, as 
a result of government policy aimed at encouraging Indonesian immigra- 
tion. Indonesians, with their long history of exposure to malaria and other 
tropical diseases shared with New Guineans, have not faced as potent a 
germ barrier as have Europeans. They are also better prepared than Euro- 
peans for subsisting in New Guinea, because Indonesian agriculture 
already included bananas, sweet potatoes, and some other staple crops of 
New Guinea agriculture. The ongoing changes in Irian Jaya represent the 
continuation, backed by a centralized government's full resources, of the 
Austronesian expansion that began to reach New Guinea 3,500 years ago. 
Indonesians are modern Austronesians. 

EUROPEANS COLONIZED AUSTRALIA, rather than Native Australians 
colonizing Europe, for the same reasons that we have just seen in the case 
of New Guinea. However, the fates of New Guineans and of Aboriginal 
Australians were very different. Today, Australia is populated and gov- 
erned by 20 million non-Aborigines, most of them of European descent, 
plus increasing numbers of Asians arriving since Australia abandoned its 
previous White Australia immigration policy in 1973. The Aboriginal pop- 
ulation declined by 80 percent, from around 300,000 at the time of Euro- 
pean settlement to a minimum of 60,000 in 1921. Aborigines today form 
an underclass of Australian society. Many of them live on mission stations 
or government reserves, or else work for whites as herdsmen on cattle 
stations. Why did Aborigines fare so much worse than New Guineans? 

The basic reason is Australia's suitability (in some areas) for European 
food production and settlement, combined with the role of European guns, 
germs, and steel in clearing Aborigines out of the way. While I already 
stressed the difficulties posed by Australia's climate and soils, its most pro- 
ductive or fertile areas can nevertheless support European farming. Agri- 
culture in the Australian temperate zone is now dominated by the Eurasian 
temperate-zone staple crops of wheat (Australia's leading crop), barley, 
oats, apples, and grapes, along with sorghum and cotton of African Sahel 
origins and potatoes of Andean origins. In tropical areas of northeastern 
Australia (Queensland) beyond the optimal range of Fertile Crescent 
crops, European farmers introduced sugarcane of New Guinea origins, 
bananas and citrus fruit of tropical Southeast Asian origins, and peanuts 
of tropical South American origins. As for livestock, Eurasian sheep made 


it possible to extend food production to arid areas of Australia unsuitable 
for agriculture, and Eurasian cattle joined crops in moister areas. 

Thus, the development of food production in Australia had to await the 
arrival of non-native crops and animals domesticated in climatically simi- 
lar parts of the world too remote for their domesticates to reach Australia 
until brought by transoceanic shipping. Unlike New Guinea, most of Aus- 
tralia lacked diseases serious enough to keep out Europeans. Only in tropi- 
cal northern Australia did malaria and other tropical diseases force 
Europeans to abandon their 19th-century attempts at settlement, which 
succeeded only with the development of 20th-century medicine. 

Australian Aborigines, of course, stood in the way of European food 
production, especially because what was potentially the most productive 
farmland and dairy country initially supported Australia's densest popula- 
tions of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers. European settlement reduced the 
number of Aborigines by two means. One involved shooting them, an 
option that Europeans considered more acceptable in the 19th and late 
18th centuries than when they entered the New Guinea highlands in the 
1930s. The last large-scale massacre, of 31 Aborigines, occurred at Alice 
Springs in 1928. The other means involved European-introduced germs to 
which Aborigines had had no opportunity to acquire immunity or to 
evolve genetic resistance. Within a year of the first European settlers' 
arrival at Sydney, in 1788, corpses of Aborigines who had died in epidem- 
ics became a common sight. The principal recorded killers were smallpox, 
influenza, measles, typhoid, typhus, chicken pox, whooping cough, tuber- 
culosis, and syphilis. 

In these two ways, independent Aboriginal societies were eliminated in 
all areas suitable for European food production. The only societies that 
survived more or less intact were those in areas of northern and western 
Australia useless to Europeans. Within one century of European coloniza- 
tion, 40,000 years of Aboriginal traditions had been mostly swept away. 

WE CAN NOW return to the problem that I posed near the beginning 
of this chapter. How, except by postulating deficiencies in the Aborigines 
themselves, can one account for the fact that white English colonists 
apparently created a literate, food-producing, industrial democracy, within 
a few decades of colonizing a continent whose inhabitants after more than 
40,000 years were still nonliterate nomadic hunter-gatherers? Doesn't that 

YALI'S PEOPLE • 3 2 1 

constitute a perfectly controlled experiment in the evolution of human 
societies, forcing us to a simple racist conclusion? 

The resolution of this problem is simple. White English colonists did 
not create a literate, food-producing, industrial democracy in Australia. 
Instead, they imported all of the elements from outside Australia: the live- 
stock, all of the crops (except macadamia nuts), the metallurgical knowl- 
edge, the steam engines, the guns, the alphabet, the political institutions, 
even the germs. All these were the end products of 10,000 years of devel- 
opment in Eurasian environments. By an accident of geography, the colo- 
nists who landed at Sydney in 1788 inherited those elements. Europeans 
have never learned to survive in Australia or New Guinea without their 
inherited Eurasian technology. Robert Burke and William Wills were smart 
enough to write, but not smart enough to survive in Australian desert 
regions where Aborigines were living. 

The people who did create a society in Australia were Aboriginal Aus- 
tralians. Of course, the society that they created was not a literate, food- 
producing, industrial democracy. The reasons follow straightforwardly 
from features of the Australian environment. 



ethnic diversity — my state of California was among the pioneers of 
these controversial policies and is now pioneering a backlash against them. 
A glance into the classrooms of the Los Angeles public school system, 
where my sons are being educated, fleshes out the abstract debates with 
the faces of children. Those children represent over 80 languages spoken 
in the home, with English-speaking whites in the minority. Every single 
one of my sons' playmates has at least one parent or grandparent who was 
born outside the United States; that's true of three of my own sons' four 
grandparents. But immigration is merely restoring the diversity that 
America held for thousands of years. Before European settlement, the 
mainland United States was home to hundreds of Native American tribes 
and languages and came under control of a single government only within 
the last hundred years. 

In these respects the United States is a thoroughly "normal" country. 
All but one of the world's six most populous nations are melting pots that 
achieved political unification recently, and that still support hundreds of 
languages and ethnic groups. For example, Russia, once a small Slavic 
state centered on Moscow, did not even begin its expansion beyond the 
Ural Mountains until A.D. 1582. From then until the 19th century, Russia 


proceeded to swallow up dozens of non-Slavic peoples, many of which 
retain their original language and cultural identity. Just as American his- 
tory is the story of how our continent's expanse became American, Rus- 
sia's history is the story of how Russia became Russian. India, Indonesia, 
and Brazil are also recent political creations (or re-creations, in the case of 
India), home to about 850, 670, and 210 languages, respectively. 

The great exception to this rale of the recent melting pot is the world's 
most populous nation, China. Today, China appears politically, culturally, 
and linguistically monolithic, at least to laypeople. It was already unified 
politically in 221 B.C. and has remained so for most of the centuries since 
then. From the beginnings of literacy in China, it has had only a single 
writing system, whereas modern Europe uses dozens of modified alpha- 
bets. Of China's 1.2 billion people, over 800 million speak Mandarin, the 
language with by far the largest number of native speakers in the world. 
Some 300 million others speak seven other languages as similar to Manda- 
rin, and to each other, as Spanish is to Italian. Thus, not only is China not 
a melting pot, but it seems absurd to ask how China became Chinese. 
China has been Chinese, almost from the beginnings of its recorded his- 

We take this seeming unity of China so much for granted that we forget 
how astonishing it is. One reason why we should not have expected such 
unity is genetic. While a coarse racial classification of world peoples lumps 
all Chinese people as so-called Mongoloids, that category conceals much 
more variation than the differences between Swedes, Italians, and Irish 
within Europe. In particular, North and South Chinese are genetically and 
physically rather different: North Chinese are most similar to Tibetans and 
Nepalese, while South Chinese are similar to Vietnamese and Filipinos. 
My North and South Chinese friends can often distinguish each other at a 
glance by physical appearance: the North Chinese tend to be taller, heav- 
ier, paler, with more pointed noses, and with smaller eyes that appear 
more "slanted" (because of what is termed their epicanthic fold). 

North and South China differ in environment and climate as well: the 
north is drier and colder; the south, wetter and hotter. Genetic differences 
arising in those differing environments imply a long history of moderate 
isolation between peoples of North and South China. How did those peo- 
ples nevertheless end up with the same or very similar languages and cul- 

China's apparent linguistic near-unity is also puzzling in view of the 


linguistic disunity of other long-settled parts of the world. For instance, 
we saw in the last chapter that New Guinea, with less than one-tenth of 
China's area and with only about 40,000 years of human history, has a 
thousand languages, including dozens of language groups whose differ- 
ences are far greater than those among the eight main Chinese languages. 
Western Europe has evolved or acquired about 40 languages just in the 
6,000-8,000 years since the arrival of Indo-European languages, including 
languages as different as English, Finnish, and Russian. Yet fossils attest 
to human presence in China for over half a million years. What happened 
to the tens of thousands of distinct languages that must have arisen in 
China over that long time span? 

These paradoxes hint that China too was once diverse, as all other pop- 
ulous nations still are. China differs only by having been unified much 
earlier. Its "Sinification" involved the drastic homogenization of a huge 
region in an ancient melting pot, the repopulation of tropical Southeast 
Asia, and the exertion of a massive influence on Japan, Korea, and possibly 
even India. Hence the history of China offers the key to the history of all 
of East Asia. This chapter will tell the story of how China did become 

r\ CONVENIENT STARTING point is a detailed linguistic map of China 
(see Figure 16.1). A glance at it is an eye-opener to all of us accustomed to 
thinking of China as monolithic. It turns out that, in addition to China's 
eight "big" languages — Mandarin and its seven close relatives (often 
referred to collectively simply as "Chinese"), with between 11 million and 
800 million speakers each — China also has over 130 "little" languages, 
many of them with just a few thousand speakers. All these languages, 
"big" and "little," fall into four language families, which differ greatly in 
the compactness of their distributions. 

At the one extreme, Mandarin and its relatives, which constitute the 
Chinese subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan language family, are distributed 
continuously from North to South China. One could walk through China, 
from Manchuria in the north to the Gulf of Tonkin in the south, while 
remaining entirely within land occupied by native speakers of Mandarin 
and its relatives. The other three families have fragmented distributions, 
being spoken by "islands" of people surrounded by a "sea" of speakers of 
Chinese and other language families. 



Especially fragmented is the distribution of the Miao-Yao (alias 
Hmong-Mien) family, which consists of 6 million speakers divided among 
about five languages, bearing the colorful names of Red Miao, White Miao 
(alias Striped Miao), Black Miao, Green Miao (alias Blue Miao), and Yao. 
Miao-Yao speakers live in dozens of small enclaves, all surrounded by 
speakers of other language families and scattered over an area of half a 
million square miles, extending from South China to Thailand. More than 
100,000 Miao-speaking refugees from Vietnam have carried this language 
family to the United States, where they are better known under the alterna- 
tive name of Hmong. 

Another fragmented language group is the Austroasiatic family, whose 
most widely spoken languages are Vietnamese and Cambodian. The 60 
million Austroasiatic speakers are scattered from Vietnam in the east to 
the Malay Peninsula in the south and to northern India in the west. The 
fourth and last of China's language families is the Tai-Kadai family 
(including Thai and Lao), whose 50 million speakers are distributed from 
South China southward into Peninsular Thailand and west to Myanmar 
(Figure 16.1). 

Naturally, Miao-Yao speakers did not acquire their current fragmented 
distribution as a result of ancient helicopter flights that dropped them here 
and there over the Asian landscape. Instead, one might guess that they 
once had a more nearly continuous distribution, which became frag- 
mented as speakers of other language families expanded or induced Miao- 
Yao speakers to abandon their tongues. In fact, much of that process of 
linguistic fragmentation occurred within the past 2,500 years and is well 
documented historically. The ancestors of modern speakers of Thai, Lao, 
and Burmese all moved south from South China and adjacent areas to 
their present locations within historical times, successively inundating the 
settled descendants of previous migrations. Speakers of Chinese languages 
were especially vigorous in replacing and linguistically converting other 
ethnic groups, whom Chinese speakers looked down upon as primitive 
and inferior. The recorded history of China's Zhou Dynasty, from 1100 to 
221 B.C., describes the conquest and absorption of most of China's non- 
Chinese-speaking population by Chinese-speaking states. 

We can use several types of reasoning to try to reconstruct the linguistic 
map of East Asia as of several thousand years ago. First, we can reverse 
the historically known linguistic expansions of recent millennia. Second, 
we can reason that modern areas with just a single language or related 

Figure 16.1. The four language families of China and Southeast Asia. 


Figure 16.2. Modem political borders in East and Southeast Asia, for use 
in interpreting the distributions of language families shown in Figure 


language group occupying a large, continuous area testify to a recent geo- 
graphic expansion of that group, such that not enough historical time has 
elapsed for it to differentiate into many languages. Finally, we can reason 
conversely that modern areas with a high diversity of languages within a 
given language family lie closer to the early center of distribution of that 
language family. 

Using those three types of reasoning to turn back the linguistic clock, 
we conclude that North China was originally occupied by speakers of Chi- 
nese and other Sino-Tibetan languages; that different parts of South China 
were variously occupied by speakers of Miao-Yao, Austroasiatic, and Tai- 
Kadai languages; and that Sino-Tibetan speakers have replaced most 
speakers of those other families over South China. An even more drastic 
linguistic upheaval must have swept over tropical Southeast Asia to the 
south of China — in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and 
Peninsular Malaysia. Whatever languages were originally spoken there 
must now be entirely extinct, because all of the modern languages of those 
countries appear to be recent invaders, mainly from South China or, in a 
few cases, from Indonesia. Since Miao-Yao languages barely survived into 
the present, we might also guess that South China once harbored still other 
language families besides Miao-Yao, Austroasiatic, and Tai-Kadai, but 
that those other families left no modern surviving languages. As we shall 
see, the Austronesian language family (to which all Philippine and Polyne- 
sian languages belong) may have been one of those other families that 
vanished from the Chinese mainland, and that we know only because it 
spread to Pacific islands and survived there. 

These language replacements in East Asia remind us of the spread of 
European languages, especially English and Spanish, into the New World, 
formerly home to a thousand or more Native American languages. We 
know from our recent history that English did not come to replace U.S. 
Indian languages merely because English sounded musical to Indians' ears. 
Instead, the replacement entailed English-speaking immigrants' killing 
most Indians by war, murder, and introduced diseases, and the surviving 
Indians' being pressured into adopting English, the new majority language. 
The immediate causes of that language replacement were the advantages 
in technology and political organization, stemming ultimately from the 
advantage of an early rise of food production, that invading Europeans 
held over Native Americans. Essentially the same processes accounted for 
the replacement of Aboriginal Australian languages by English, and of 


subequatorial Africa's original Pygmy and Khoisan languages by Bantu 

Hence East Asia's linguistic upheavals raise a corresponding question: 
what enabled Sino-Tibetan speakers to spread from North China to South 
China, and speakers of Austroasiatic and the other original South China 
language families to spread south into tropical Southeast Asia? Here, we 
must turn to archaeology for evidence of the technological, political, and 
agricultural advantages that some Asians evidently gained over other 

As EVERYWHERE ELSE in the world, the archaeological record in East 
Asia for most of human history reveals only the debris of hunter-gatherers 
using unpolished stone tools and lacking pottery. The first East Asian evi- 
dence for something different comes from China, where crop remains, 
bones of domestic animals, pottery, and polished (Neolithic) stone tools 
appear by around 7500 B.C. That date is within a thousand years of the 
beginning of the Neolithic Age and food production in the Fertile Cres- 
cent. But because the previous millennium in China is poorly known 
archaeologically, one cannot decide at present whether the origins of Chi- 
nese food production were contemporaneous with those in the Fertile 
Crescent, slightly earlier, or slightly later. At the least, we can say that 
China was one of the world's first centers of plant and animal domestica- 

China may actually have encompassed two or more independent centers 
of origins of food production. I already mentioned the ecological differ- 
ences between China's cool, dry north and warm, wet south. At a given 
latitude, there are also ecological distinctions between the coastal lowlands 
and the interior uplands. Different wild plants are native to these disparate 
environments and would thus have been variously available to incipient 
farmers in various parts of China. In fact, the earliest identified crops were 
two drought-resistant species of millet in North China, but rice in South 
China, suggesting the possibility of separate northern and southern centers 
of plant domestication. 

Chinese sites with the earliest evidence of crops also contained bones of 
domestic pigs, dogs, and chickens. These domestic animals and crops were 
gradually joined by China's many other domesticates. Among the animals, 
water buffalo were most important (for pulling plows), while silkworms, 


ducks, and geese were others. Familiar later Chinese crops include soy- 
beans, hemp, citrus fruit, tea, apricots, peaches, and pears. In addition, 
just as Eurasia's east-west axis permitted many of these Chinese animals 
and crops to spread westward in ancient times, West Asian domesticates 
also spread eastward to China and became important there. Especially sig- 
nificant western contributions to ancient China's economy have been 
wheat and barley, cows and horses, and (to a lesser extent) sheep and 

As elsewhere in the world, in China food production gradually led to 
the other hallmarks of "civilization" discussed in Chapters 11-14. A 
superb Chinese tradition of bronze metallurgy had its origins in the third 
millennium B.C. and eventually resulted in China's developing by far the 
earliest cast-iron production in the world, around 500 B.C. The following 
1,500 years saw the outpouring of Chinese technological inventions, men- 
tioned in Chapter 13, that included paper, the compass, the wheelbarrow, 
and gunpowder. Fortified towns emerged in the third millennium B.C., 
with cemeteries whose great variation between unadorned and luxuriously 
furnished graves bespeaks emerging class differences. Stratified societies 
whose rulers could mobilize large labor forces of commoners are also 
attested by huge urban defensive walls, big palaces, and eventually the 
Grand Canal (the world's longest canal, over 1,000 miles long), linking 
North and South China. Writing is preserved from the second millennium 
B.C. but probably arose earlier. Our archaeological knowledge of China's 
emerging cities and states then becomes supplemented by written accounts 
of China's first dynasties, going back to the Xia Dynasty, which arose 
around 2000 B.C. 

As for food production's more sinister by-product of infectious diseases, 
we cannot specify where within the Old World most major diseases of 
Old World origin arose. However, European writings from Roman and 
medieval times clearly describe the arrival of bubonic plague and possibly 
smallpox from the east, so these germs could be of Chinese or East Asian 
origin. Influenza (derived from pigs) is even more likely to have arisen in 
China, since pigs were domesticated so early and became so important 

China's size and ecological diversity spawned many separate local cul- 
tures, distinguishable archaeologically by their differing styles of pottery 
and artifacts. In the fourth millennium B.C. those local cultures expanded 
geographically and began to interact, compete with each other, and 


coalesce, just as exchanges of domesticates between ecologically diverse 
regions enriched Chinese food production, exchanges between culturally 
diverse regions enriched Chinese culture and technology, and fierce compe- 
tition between warring chiefdoms drove the formation of ever larger and 
more centralized states (Chapter 14). 

While China's north-south gradient retarded crop diffusion, the gradi- 
ent was less of a barrier there than in the Americas or Africa, because 
China's north-south distances were smaller; and because China's is tran- 
sected neither by desert, as is Africa and northern Mexico, nor by a narrow 
isthmus as is Central America. Instead, China's long east-west rivers (the 
Yellow River in the north, the Yangtze River in the south) facilitated diffu- 
sion of crops and technology between the coast and inland, while its broad 
east-west expanse and relatively gentle terrain, which eventually permitted 
those two river systems to be joined by canals, facilitated north- south 
exchanges. All these geographic factors contributed to the early cultural 
and political unification of China, whereas western Europe, with a similar 
area but a more rugged terrain and no such unifying rivers, has resisted 
cultural and political unification to this day. 

Some developments spread from south to north in China, especially 
iron smelting and rice cultivation. But the predominant direction of spread 
was from north to south. That trend is clearest for writing: in contrast to 
western Eurasia, which produced a plethora of early writing systems, such 
as Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Hittite, Minoan, and the 
Semitic alphabet, China developed just a single well-attested writing sys- 
tem. It was perfected in North China, spread and preempted or replaced 
any other nascent system, and evolved into the writing still used in China 
today. Other major features of North Chinese societies that spread south- 
ward were bronze technology, Sino-Tibetan languages, and state forma- 
tion. All three of China's first three dynasties, the Xia and Shang and Zhou 
Dynasties, arose in North China in the second millennium B C 

Preserved writings of the first millennium B.C. show that ethnic Chinese 
already tended then (as many still do today) to feel culturally superior to 
non-Chinese barbarians," while North Chinese tended to regard even 
South Chinese as barbarians. For example, a late Zhou Dynasty writer of 
the first millennium B.C. described China's other peoples as follows: "The 
people of those five regions -the Middle states and the Rong, Yi, and other 
wild tribes around them-had all their several natures, which they could 
not be made to alter. The tribes on the east were called Yi. They had their 


hair unbound, and tattooed their bodies. Some of them ate their food with- 
out its being cooked by fire." The Zhou author went on to describe wild 
tribes to the south, west, and north as indulging in equally barbaric prac- 
tices, such as turning their feet inward, tattooing their foreheads, wearing 
skins, living in caves, not eating cereals, and, of course, eating their food 

States organized by or modeled on that Zhou Dynasty of North China 
spread to South China during the first millennium B.C., culminating in 
China's political unification under the Qin Dynasty in 221 B.C. Its cultural 
unification accelerated during that same period, as literate "civilized" Chi- 
nese states absorbed, or were copied by, the illiterate "barbarians." Some 
of that cultural unification was ferocious: for instance, the first Qin 
emperor condemned all previously written historical books as worthless 
and ordered them burned, much to the detriment of our understanding of 
early Chinese history and writing. Those and other draconian measures 
must have contributed to the spread of North China's Sino-Tibetan lan- 
guages over most of China, and to reducing the Miao-Yao and other lan- 
guage families to their present fragmented distributions. 

Within East Asia, China's head start in food production, technology, 
writing, and state formation had the consequence that Chinese innova- 
tions also contributed heavily to developments in neighboring regions. For 
instance, until the fourth millennium B.C. most of tropical Southeast Asia 
was still occupied by hunter-gatherers making pebble and flake stone tools 
belonging to what is termed the Hoabinhian tradition, named after the 
site ofHoa Binh, in Vietnam. Thereafter, Chinese-derived crops, Neolithic 
technology, village living, and pottery similar to that of South China 
spread into tropical Southeast Asia, probably accompanied by South Chi- 
na's language families. The historical southward expansions of Burmese, 
Laotians, and Thais from South China completed the Salification of tropi- 
cal Southeast Asia. All those modern peoples are recent offshoots of their 
South Chinese cousins. 

So overwhelming was this Chinese steamroller that the former peoples 
of tropical Southeast Asia have left behind few traces in the region's mod- 
ern populations. Just three relict groups of hunter-gatherers — the Semang 
Negritos of the Malay Peninsula, the Andaman Islanders, and the Veddoid 
Negritos of Sri Lanka — remain to suggest that tropical Southeast Asia's 
former inhabitants may have been dark-skinned and curly-haired, like 
modern New Guineans and unlike the light-skinned, straight-haired South 


Chinese and the modern tropical Southeast Asians who are their offshoots. 
Those relict Negritos of Southeast Asia may be the last survivors of the 
source population from which New Guinea was colonized. The Semang 
Negritos persisted as hunter-gatherers trading with neighboring farmers 
but adopted an Austroasiatic language from those farmers — much as, we 
shall see, Philippine Negrito and African Pygmy hunter-gatherers adopted 
languages from their farmer trading partners. Only on the remote Anda- 
man Islands do languages unrelated to the South Chinese language families 
persist — the last linguistic survivors of what must have been hundreds of 
now extinct aboriginal Southeast Asian languages. 

Even Korea and Japan were heavily influenced by China, although their 
geographic isolation from it ensured that they did not lose their languages 
or physical and genetic distinctness, as did tropical Southeast Asia. Korea 
and Japan adopted rice from China in the second millennium B.C., bronze 
metallurgy by the first millennium B.C., and writing in the first millennium 
A.D. China also transmitted West Asian wheat and barley to Korea and 

In thus describing China's seminal role in East Asian civilization, we 
should not exaggerate. It is not the case that all cultural advances in East 
Asia stemmed from China and that Koreans, Japanese, and tropical South- 
east Asians were noninventive barbarians who contributed nothing. The 
ancient Japanese developed some of the oldest pottery in the world and 
settled as hunter-gatherers in villages subsisting on Japan's rich seafood 
resources, long before the arrival of food production. Some crops were 
probably domesticated first or independently in Japan, Korea, and tropical 
Southeast Asia. 

But China's role was nonetheless disproportionate. For example, the 
prestige value of Chinese culture is still so great in Japan and Korea that 
Japan has no thought of discarding its Chinese-derived writing system 
despite its drawbacks for representing Japanese speech, while Korea is 
only now replacing its clumsy Chinese-derived writing with its wonderful 
indigenous han'gul alphabet. That persistence of Chinese writing in Japan 
and Korea is a vivid 20th-century legacy of plant and animal domestica- 
tion in China nearly 10,000 years ago. Thanks to the achievements of East 
Asia's first farmers, China became Chinese, and peoples from Thailand to 
(as we shall see in the next chapter) Easter Island became their cousins. 



incident that happened when three Indonesian friends and I walked 
into a store in Jayapura, the capital of Indonesian New Guinea. My 
friends' names were Achmad, Wiwor, and Sauakari, and the store was 
run by a merchant named Ping Wah. Achmad, an Indonesian government 
officer, was acting as the boss, because he and I were organizing an ecolog- 
ical survey for the government and had hired Wiwor and Sauakari as local 
assistants. But Achmad had never before been in a New Guinea mountain 
forest and had no idea what supplies to buy. The results were comical. 

At the moment that my friends entered the store, Ping Wah was reading 
a Chinese newspaper. When he saw Wiwor and Sauakari, he kept reading 
it but then shoved it out of sight under the counter as soon as he noticed 
Achmad. Achmad picked up an ax head, causing Wiwor and Sauakari to 
laugh, because he was holding it upside down. Wiwor and Sauakari 
showed him how to hold it correctly and to test it. Achmad and Sauakari 
then looked at Wiwor's bare feet, with toes splayed wide from a lifetime 
of not wearing shoes. Sauakari picked out the widest available shoes and 
held them against Wiwor's feet, but the shoes were still too narrow, send- 
ing Achmad and Sauakari and Ping Wah into peals of laughter. Achmad 
picked up a plastic comb with which to comb out his straight, coarse black 


hair. Glancing at Wiwor's tough, tightly coiled hair, he handed the comb 
to Wiwor. It immediately stuck in Wiwor's hair, then broke as soon as 
Wiwor pulled on the comb. Everyone laughed, including Wiwor. Wiwor 
responded by reminding Achmad that he should buy lots of rice, because 
there would be no food to buy in New Guinea mountain villages except 
sweet potatoes, which would upset Achmad's stomach — more hilarity. 

Despite all the laughter, I could sense the underlying tensions. Achmad 
was Javan, Ping Wah Chinese, Wiwor a New Guinea highlander, and 
Sauakari a New Guinea lowlander from the north coast. Javans dominate 
the Indonesian government, which annexed western New Guinea in the 
1960s and used bombs and machine guns to crush New Guinean opposi- 
tion. Achmad later decided to stay in town and to let me do the forest 
survey alone with Wiwor and Sauakari. He explained his decision to me 
by pointing to his straight, coarse hair, so unlike that of New Guineans, 
and saying that New Guineans would kill anyone with hair like his if they 
found him far from army backup. 

Ping Wah had put away his newspaper because importation of Chinese 
writing is nominally illegal in Indonesian New Guinea. In much of Indone- 
sia the merchants are Chinese immigrants. Latent mutual fear between the 
economically dominant Chinese and politically dominant Javans erupted 
in 1966 in a bloody revolution, when Javans slaughtered hundreds of 
thousands of Chinese. As New Guineans, Wiwor and Sauakari shared 
most New Guineans' resentment of Javan dictatorship, but they also 
scorned each other's groups. Highlanders dismiss lowlanders as effete sago 
eaters, while lowlanders dismiss highlanders as primitive big-heads, refer- 
ring both to their massive coiled hair and to their reputation for arrogance. 
Within a few days of my setting up an isolated forest camp with Wiwor 
and Sauakari, they came close to fighting each other with axes. 

Tensions among the groups that Achmad, Wiwor, Sauakari, and Ping 
Wah represent dominate the politics of Indonesia, the world's fourth-most- 
populous nation. These modern tensions have roots going back thousands 
of years. When we think of major overseas population movements, we 
tend to focus on those since Columbus's discovery of the Americas, and on 
the resulting replacements of non-Europeans by Europeans within historic 
times. But there were also big overseas movements long before Columbus, 
and prehistoric replacements of non-European peoples by other non-Euro- 
pean peoples. Wiwor, Achmad, and Sauakari represent three prehistorical 
waves of people that moved overseas from the Asian mainland into the 


Pacific. Wiwor's highlanders are probably descended from an early wave 
that had colonized New Guinea from Asia by 40,000 years ago. Achmad's 
ancestors arrived in Java ultimately from the South China coast, around 
4,000 years ago, completing the replacement there of people related to 
Wiwor's ancestors. Sauakari's ancestors reached New Guinea around 
3,600 years ago, as part of that same wave from the South China coast, 
while Ping Wah's ancestors still occupy China. 

The population movement that brought Achmad's and Sauakari's 
ancestors to Java and New Guinea, respectively, termed the Austronesian 
expansion, was among the biggest population movements of the last 6,000 
years. One prong of it became the Polynesians, who populated the most 
remote islands of the Pacific and were the greatest seafarers among Neo- 
lithic peoples. Austronesian languages are spoken today as native lan- 
guages over more than half of the globe's span, from Madagascar to Easter 
Island. In this book on human population movements since the end of the 
Ice Ages, the Austronesian expansion occupies a central place, as one of 
the most important phenomena to be explained. Why did Austronesian 
people, stemming ultimately from mainland China, colonize Java and the 
rest of Indonesia and replace the original inhabitants there, instead of 
Indonesians colonizing China and replacing the Chinese? Having occupied 
all of Indonesia, why were the Austronesians then unable to occupy more 
than a narrow coastal strip of the New Guinea lowlands, and why were 
they completely unable to displace Wiwor's people from the New Guinea 
highlands? How did the descendants of Chinese emigrants become trans- 
formed into Polynesians? 

TODAY, THE POPULATION of Java, most other Indonesian islands 
(except the easternmost ones), and the Philippines is rather homogeneous. 
In appearance and genes those islands' inhabitants are similar to South 
Chinese, and even more similar to tropical Southeast Asians, especially 
those of the Malay Peninsula. Their languages are equally homogeneous: 
while 374 languages are spoken in the Philippines and western and central 
Indonesia, all of them are closely related and fall within the same sub- 
subfamily (Western Malayo-Polynesian) of the Austronesian language 
family. Austronesian languages reached the Asian mainland on the Malay 
Peninsula and in small pockets in Vietnam and Cambodia, near the west- 
ernmost Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo, but they occur 
nowhere else on the mainland (Figure 17.1). Some Austronesian words 


Distribution of Austronesian languages 

Figure 17.1. The Austronesian language family consists of four 
subfamilies, three of them confined to Taiwan and one (Malayo-Poly-* 
nesian) widespread. The latter subfamily in turn consists of two sub- 
subfamilies, Western Malay o-Polynesian (= W M-Pj and Central- 
Eastern Malayo-Polynesian ( = C-E M-P). The latter sub-subfamily in 
turn consists of four sub- sub- subfamilies, the very widespread Oce- 
anic one to the east and three others to the west in a much smaller 
area comprising Halmahera, nearby islands of eastern Indonesia, and 
the west end of New Guinea. 

borrowed into English include "taboo" and "tattoo" (from a Polynesian 
language), "boondocks" (from the Tagalog language of the Philippines), 
and "amok," "batik," and "orangutan" (from Malay). 

That genetic and linguistic uniformity of Indonesia and the Philippines 
is initially as surprising as is the predominant linguistic uniformity of 
China. The famous Java Homo erectus fossils prove that humans have 
occupied at least western Indonesia for a million years. That should have 
given ample time for humans to evolve genetic and linguistic diversity and 
tropical adaptations, such as dark skins like those of many other tropical 
peoples — but instead Indonesians and Filipinos have light skins. 

It is also surprising that Indonesians and Filipinos are so similar to trop- 


ical Southeast Asians and South Chinese in other physical features besides 
light skins and in their genes. A glance at a map makes it obvious that 
Indonesia offered the only possible route by which humans could have 
reached New Guinea and Australia 40,000 years ago, so one might naively 
have expected modern Indonesians to be like modern New Guineans and 
Australians. In reality, there are only a few New Guinean-like populations 
in the Philippine / western Indonesia area, notably the Negritos living in 
mountainous areas of the Philippines. As is also true of the three New 
Guinean-like relict populations that I mentioned in speaking of tropical 
Southeast Asia (Chapter 16), the Philippine Negritos could be relicts of 
populations ancestral to Wiwor's people before they reached New Guinea. 
Even those Negritos speak Austronesian languages similar to those of their 
Filipino neighbors, implying that they too (like Malaysia's Semang 
Negritos and Africa's Pygmies) have lost their original language. 

All these facts suggest strongly that either tropical Southeast Asians or 
South Chinese speaking Austronesian languages recently spread through 
the Philippines and Indonesia, replacing all the former inhabitants of those 
islands except the Philippine Negritos, and replacing all the original island 
languages. That event evidently took place too recently for the colonists to 
evolve dark skins, distinct language families, or genetic distinctiveness or 
diversity. Their languages are of course much more numerous than the 
eight dominant Chinese languages of mainland China, but are no more 
diverse. The proliferation of many similar languages in the Philippines and 
Indonesia merely reflects the fact that the islands never underwent a politi- 
cal and cultural unification, as did China. 

Details of language distributions provide valuable clues to the route of 
this hypothesized Austronesian expansion. The whole Austronesian lan- 
guage family consists of 959 languages, divided among four subfamilies. 
But one of those subfamilies, termed Malayo-Polynesian, comprises 945 
of those 959 languages and covers almost the entire geographic range of 
the Austronesian family. Before the recent overseas expansion of Europe- 
ans speaking Indo-European languages, Austronesian was the most wide- 
spread language family in the world. That suggests that the Malayo- 
Polynesian subfamily differentiated recently out of the Austronesian fam- 
ily and spread far from the Austronesian homeland, giving rise to many 
local languages, all of which are still closely related because there has been 
too little time to develop large linguistic differences. For the location of 
that Austronesian homeland, we should therefore look not to Malayo- 


Polynesian but to the other three Austronesian subfamilies, which differ 
considerably more from each other and from Malayo-Polynesian than the 
sub-subfamilies of Malayo-Polynesian differ among each other. 

It turns out that those three other subfamilies have coincident distribu- 
tions, all of them tiny compared with the distribution of Malayo-Polyne- 
sian. They are confined to aborigines of the island of Taiwan, lying only 
90 miles from the South China mainland. Taiwan's aborigines had the 
island largely to themselves until mainland Chinese began settling in large 
numbers within the last thousand years. Still more mainlanders arrived 
after 1945, especially after the Chinese Communists defeated the Chinese 
Nationalists in 1949, so that aborigines now constitute only 2 percent of 
Taiwan's population. The concentration of three out of the four Austrone- 
sian subfamilies on Taiwan suggests that, within the present Austronesian 
realm, Taiwan is the homeland where Austronesian languages have been 
spoken for the most millennia and have consequently had the longest time 
in which to diverge. All other Austronesian languages, from those on Mad- 
agascar to those on Easter Island, would then stem from a population 
expansion out of Taiwan. 

WE CAN NOW turn to archaeological evidence. While the debris of 
ancient village sites does not include fossilized words along with bones 
and pottery, it does reveal movements of people and cultural artifacts that 
could be associated with languages. Like the rest of the world, most of 
the present Austronesian realm — Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and 
many Pacific islands — was originally occupied by hunter-gatherers lacking 
pottery, polished stone tools, domestic animals, and crops. (The sole 
exceptions to this generalization are the remote islands of Madagascar, 
eastern Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia, which were never reached 
by hunter-gatherers and remained empty of humans until the Austronesian 
expansion.) The first archaeological signs of something different within 
the Austronesian realm come from — Taiwan. Beginning around the fourth 
millennium B.C., polished stone tools and a distinctive decorated pottery 
style (so-called Ta-p'en-k'eng pottery) derived from earlier South China 
mainland pottery appeared on Taiwan and on the opposite coast of the 
South China mainland. Remains of rice and millet at later Taiwanese sites 
provide evidence of agriculture. 

Ta-p'en-k'eng sites of Taiwan and the South China coast are full of fish 


bones and mollusk shells, as well as of stone net sinkers and adzes suitable 
for hollowing out a wooden canoe. Evidently, those first Neolithic occu- 
pants of Taiwan had watercraft adequate for deep-sea fishing and for regu- 
lar sea traffic across Taiwan Strait, separating that island from the China 
coast. Thus, Taiwan Strait may have served as the training ground where 
mainland Chinese developed the open-water maritime skills that would 
permit them to expand over the Pacific. 

One specific type of artifact linking Taiwan's Ta-p'en-k'eng culture to 
later Pacific island cultures is a bark beater, a stone implement used for 
pounding the fibrous bark of certain tree species into rope, nets, and cloth- 
ing. Once Pacific peoples spread beyond the range of wool-yielding domes- 
tic animals and fiber plant crops and hence of woven clothing, they became 
dependent on pounded bark "cloth" for their clothing. Inhabitants of 
Rennell Island, a traditional Polynesian island that did not become West- 
ernized until the 1930s, told me that Westernization yielded the wonderful 
side benefit that the island became quiet. No more sounds of bark beaters 
everywhere, pounding out bark cloth from dawn until after dusk every 

Within a millennium or so after the Ta-p'en-k'eng culture reached Tai- 
wan, archaeological evidence shows that cultures obviously derived from 
it spread farther and farther from Taiwan to fill up the modern Austrone- 
sian realm (Figure 17.2). The evidence includes ground stone tools, pot- 
tery, bones of domestic pigs, and crop remains. For example, the decorated 
Ta-p'en-k'eng pottery on Taiwan gave way to undecorated plain or red 
pottery, which has also been found at sites in the Philippines and on the 
Indonesian islands of Celebes and Timor. This cultural "package" of pot- 
tery, stone tools, and domesticates appeared around 3000 B.C. in the Phil- 
ippines, around 2500 B.C. on the Indonesian islands of Celebes and North 
Borneo and Timor, around 2000 B.C. on Java and Sumatra, and around 
1600 B.C. in the New Guinea region. There, as we shall see, the expansion 
assumed a speedboat pace, as bearers of the cultural package raced east- 
ward into the previously uninhabited Pacific Ocean beyond the Solomon 
Archipelago. The last phases of the expansion, during the millennium after 
A.D. 1, resulted in the colonization of every Polynesian and Micronesian 
island capable of supporting humans. Astonishingly, it also swept west- 
ward across the Indian Ocean to the east coast of Africa, resulting in the 
colonization of the island of Madagascar. 


Figure 17.2. The paths of the Austronesian expansion, with approxi- 
mate dates when each region was reached. 4a = Borneo, 4b = Celebes, 
4c = Timor (around 2500 B.C.). 5a = Halmahera (around 1600 B.C.). 
5b = Java, 5c = Sumatra (around 2000 B.C.). 6a = Bismarck Archipel- 
ago (around 1600 B.C.). 6b = Malay Peninsula, 6c - Vietnam (around 
1000 B.C.). 7 = Solomon Archipelago (around 1600 B.C.). 8 = Santa 
Cruz, 9c = Tonga, 9d = New Caledonia (around 1200 B.C.). 10b = 
Society Islands, 10c = Cook Islands, 11a = Tuamotu Archipelago 
(around A.D. 1). 

At least until the expansion reached coastal New Guinea, travel 
between islands was probably by double-outrigger sailing canoes, which 
are still widespread throughout Indonesia today. That boat design repre- 
sented a major advance over the simple dugout canoes prevalent among 
traditional peoples living on inland waterways throughout the world. A 
dugout canoe is just what its name implies: a solid tree trunk "dug out" 
(that is, hollowed out), and its ends shaped, by an adze. Since the canoe is 
as round-bottomed as the trunk from which it was carved, the least imbal- 
ance in weight distribution tips the canoe toward the overweighted side. 



Whenever I've been paddled in dugouts up New Guinea rivers by New 
Guineans, I have spent much of the trip in terror: it seemed that every 
slight movement of mine risked capsizing the canoe and spilling out me 
and my binoculars to commune with crocodiles. New Guineans manage 
to look secure while paddling dugouts on calm lakes and rivers, but not 
even New Guineans can use a dugout in seas with modest waves. Hence 
some stabilizing device must have been essential not only for the Austrone- 
sian expansion through Indonesia but even for the initial colonization of 

The solution was to lash two smaller logs ("outriggers") parallel to the 
hull and several feet from it, one on each side, connected to the hull by 
poles lashed perpendicular to the hull and outriggers. Whenever the hull 
starts to tip toward one side, the buoyancy of the outrigger on that side 
prevents the outrigger from being pushed under the water and hence 
makes it virtually impossible to capsize the vessel. The invention of the 
double-outrigger sailing canoe may have been the technological break- 
through that triggered the Austronesian expansion from the Chinese main- 

TWO STRIKING COINCIDENCES between archaeological and linguistic 
evidence support the inference that the people bringing a Neolithic culture 
to Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia thousands of years ago spoke 
Austronesian languages and were ancestral to the Austronesian speakers 
still inhabiting those islands today. First, both types of evidence point 
unequivocally to the colonization of Taiwan as the first stage of the expan- 
sion from the South China coast, and to the colonization of the Philippines 
and Indonesia from Taiwan as the next stage. If the expansion had pro- 
ceeded from tropical Southeast Asia's Malay Peninsula to the nearest Indo- 
nesian island of Sumatra, then to other Indonesian islands, and finally to 
the Philippines and Taiwan, we would find the deepest divisions (reflecting 
the greatest time depth) of the Austronesian language family among the 
modern languages of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, and the languages 
of Taiwan and the Philippines would have differentiated only recently 
within a single subfamily. Instead, the deepest divisions are in Taiwan, and 
the languages of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra fall together in the 
same sub-sub-subfamily: a recent branch of the Western Malayo-Polyne- 


sian sub-subfamily, which is in turn a fairly recent branch of the Malayo- 
Polynesian subfamily. Those details of linguistic relationships agree per- 
fectly with the archaeological evidence that the colonization of the Malay 
Peninsula was recent, and followed rather than preceded the colonization 
of Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. 

The other coincidence between archaeological and linguistic evidence 
concerns the cultural baggage that ancient Austronesians used. Archaeol- 
ogy provides us with direct evidence of culture in the form of pottery, pig 
and fish bones, and so on. One might initially wonder how a linguist, 
studying only modern languages whose unwritten ancestral forms remain 
unknown, could ever figure out whether Austronesians living on Taiwan 
6,000 years ago had pigs. The solution is to reconstruct the vocabularies 
of vanished ancient languages (so-called protolanguages) by comparing 
vocabularies of modern languages derived from them. 

For instance, the words meaning "sheep" in many languages of the 
Indo-European language family, distributed from Ireland to India, are 
quite similar: "avis," "avis," "ovis," "oveja," "ovtsa," "owis," and "oi" 
in Lithuanian, Sanskrit, Latin, Spanish, Russian, Greek, and Irish, respec- 
tively. (The English "sheep" is obviously from a different root, but English 
retains the original root in the word "ewe.") Comparison of the sound 
shifts that the various modern Indo-European languages have undergone 
during their histories suggests that the original form was "owis" in the 
ancestral Indo-European language spoken around 6,000 years ago. That 
unwritten ancestral language is termed Proto-Indo-European. 

Evidently, Proto-Indo-Europeans 6,000 years ago had sheep, in 
agreement with archaeological evidence. Nearly 2,000 other words of 
their vocabulary can similarly be reconstructed, including words for 
"goat," "horse," "wheel," "brother," and "eye." But no Proto-Indo-Euro- 
pean word can be reconstructed for "gun," which uses different roots in 
different modern Indo-European languages: "gun" in English, "fusil" in 
French, "ruzhyo" in Russian, and so on. That shouldn't surprise us: people 
6,000 years ago couldn't possibly have had a word for guns, which were 
invented only within the past 1,000 years. Since there was thus no inher- 
ited shared root meaning "gun," each Indo-European language had to 
invent or borrow its own word when guns were finally invented. 

Proceeding in the same way, we can compare modern Taiwanese, Philip- 
pine, Indonesian, and Polynesian languages to reconstruct a Proto-Aus- 

3 4 4 


tronesian language spoken in the distant past. To no one's surprise, that 
reconstructed Proto-Austronesian language had words with meanings 
such as "two," "bird," "ear," and "head louse": of course, Proto-Aus- 
tronesians could count to 2, knew of birds, and had ears and lice. More 
interestingly, the reconstructed language had words for "pig," "dog," and 
"rice," which must therefore have been part of Proto-Austronesian cul- 
ture. The reconstructed language is full of words indicating a maritime 
economy, such as "outrigger canoe," "sail," "giant clam," "octopus," 
"fish trap," and "sea turtle." This linguistic evidence regarding the culture 
of Proto-Austronesians, wherever and whenever they lived, agrees well 
with the archaeological evidence regarding the pottery-making, sea-ori- 
ented, food-producing people living on Taiwan around 6,000 years ago. 

The same procedure can be applied to reconstruct Proto-Malayo-Poly- 
nesian, the ancestral language spoken by Austronesians after emigrating 
from Taiwan. Proto-Malayo-Polynesian contains words for many tropical 
crops like taro, breadfruit, bananas, yams, and coconuts, for which no 
word can be reconstructed in Proto-Austronesian. Thus, the linguistic evi- 
dence suggests that many tropical crops were added to the Austronesian 
repertoire after the emigration from Taiwan. This conclusion agrees with 
archaeological evidence: as colonizing farmers spread southward from Tai- 
wan (lying about 23 degrees north of the equator) toward the equatorial 
tropics, they came to depend increasingly on tropical root and tree crops, 
which they proceeded to carry with them out into the tropical Pacific. 

How could those Austronesian-speaking farmers from South China via 
Taiwan replace the original hunter-gatherer population of the Philippines 
and western Indonesia so completely that little genetic and no linguistic 
evidence of that original population survived? The reasons resemble the 
reasons why Europeans replaced or exterminated Native Australians 
within the last two centuries, and why South Chinese replaced the original 
tropical Southeast Asians earlier: the farmers' much denser populations, 
superior tools and weapons, more developed watercraft and maritime 
skills, and epidemic diseases to which the farmers but not the hunter-gath- 
erers had some resistance. On the Asian mainland Austronesian-speaking 
farmers were able similarly to replace some of the former hunter-gatherers 
of the Malay Peninsula, because Austronesians colonized the peninsula 
from the south and east (from the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and 
Borneo) around the same time that Austroasiatic-speaking farmers were 
colonizing the peninsula from the north (from Thailand). Other Austrone- 


sians managed to establish themselves in parts of southern Vietnam and 
Cambodia to become the ancestors of the modern Chamic minority of 
those countries. 

However, Austronesian farmers could spread no farther into the South- 
east Asian mainland, because Austroasiatic and Tai-Kadai farmers had 
already replaced the former hunter-gatherers there, and because Austrone- 
sian farmers had no advantage over Austroasiatic and Tai-Kadai farmers. 
Although we infer that Austronesian speakers originated from coastal 
South China, Austronesian languages today are not spoken anywhere in 
mainland China, possibly because they were among the hundreds of for- 
mer Chinese languages eliminated by the southward expansion of Sino- 
Tibetan speakers. But the language families closest to Austronesian are 
thought to be Tai-Kadai, Austroasiatic, and Miao-Yao. Thus, while Aus- 
tronesian languages in China may not have survived the onslaught of Chi- 
nese dynasties, some of their sister and cousin languages did. 

WE HAVE NOW followed the initial stages of the Austronesian expan- 
sion for 2,500 miles from the South China coast, through Taiwan and 
the Philippines, to western and central Indonesia. In the course of that 
expansion, Austronesians came to occupy all habitable areas of those 
islands, from the seacoast to the interior, and from the lowlands to the 
mountains. By 1500 B.C. their familiar archaeological hallmarks, including 
pig bones and plain red-slipped pottery, show that they had reached the 
eastern Indonesian island of Halmahera, less than 200 miles from the west- 
ern end of the big mountainous island of New Guinea. Did they proceed 
to overrun that island, just as they had already overrun the big mountain- 
ous islands of Celebes, Borneo, Java, and Sumatra? 

They did not, as a glance at the faces of most modern New Guineans 
makes obvious, and as detailed studies of New Guinean genes confirm. 
My friend Wiwor and all other New Guinea highlanders differ obviously 
from Indonesians, Filipinos, and South Chinese in their dark skins, tightly 
coiled hair, and face shapes. Most lowlanders from New Guinea's interior 
and south coast resemble the highlanders except that they tend to be taller. 
Geneticists have failed to find characteristic Austronesian gene markers in 
blood samples from New Guinea highlanders. 

But peoples of New Guinea's north and east coasts, and of the Bismarck 
and Solomon Archipelagoes north and east of New Guinea, present a more 


complex picture. In appearance, they are variably intermediate between 
highlanders like Wiwor and Indonesians like Achmad, though on the aver- 
age considerably closer to Wiwor. For instance, my friend Sauakari from 
the north coast has wavy hair intermediate between Achmad's straight hair 
and Wiwor's coiled hair, and skin somewhat paler than Wiwor's, though 
considerably darker than Achmad's. Genetically, the Bismarck and Solo- 
mon islanders and north coastal New Guineans are about 15 percent 
Austronesian and 85 percent like New Guinea highlanders. Hence Aus- 
tronesians evidently reached the New Guinea region but failed completely 
to penetrate the island's interior and were genetically diluted by New 
Guinea's previous residents on the north coast and islands. 

Modern languages tell essentially the same story but add detail. In 
Chapter 15 1 explained that most New Guinea languages, termed Papuan 
languages, are unrelated to any language families elsewhere in the world. 
Without exception, every language spoken in the New Guinea mountains, 
the whole of southwestern and south-central lowland New Guinea, includ- 
ing the coast, and the interior of northern New Guinea is a Papuan lan- 
guage. But Austronesian languages are spoken in a narrow strip 
immediately on the north and southeast coasts. Most languages of the Bis- 
marck and Solomon islands are Austronesian: Papuan languages are spo- 
ken only in isolated pockets on a few islands. 

Austronesian languages spoken in the Bismarcks and Solomons and 
north coastal New Guinea are related, as a separate sub-sub-subfamily 
termed Oceanic, to the sub-sub-subfamily of languages spoken on Hal-> 
mahera and the west end of New Guinea. That linguistic relationship con- 
firms, as one would expect from a map, that Austronesian speakers of the 
New Guinea region arrived by way of Halmahera. Details of Austronesian 
and Papuan languages and their distributions in North New Guinea testify 
to long contact between the Austronesian invaders and the Papuan-speak- 
ing residents. Both the Austronesian and the Papuan languages of the 
region show massive influences of each other's vocabularies and gram- 
mars, making it difficult to decide whether certain languages are basically 
Austronesian languages influenced by Papuan ones or the reverse. As one 
travels from village to village along the north coast or its fringing islands, 
one passes from a village with an Austronesian language to a village with 
a Papuan language and then to another Austronesian-speaking village, 
without any genetic discontinuity at the linguistic boundaries. 


All this suggests that descendants of Austronesian invaders and of origi- 
nal New Guineans have been trading, intermarrying, and acquiring each 
other's genes and languages for several thousand years on the North New 
Guinea coast and its islands. That long contact transferred Austronesian 
languages more effectively than Austronesian genes, with the result that 
most Bismarck and Solomon islanders now speak Austronesian languages, 
even though their appearance and most of their genes are still Papuan. But 
neither the genes nor the languages of the Austronesians penetrated New 
Guinea's interior. The outcome of their invasion of New Guinea was thus 
very different from the outcome of their invasion of Borneo, Celebes, and 
other big Indonesian islands, where their steamroller eliminated almost all 
traces of the previous inhabitants' genes and languages. To understand 
what happened in New Guinea, let us now turn to the evidence from 

AROUND 1600 B.C., almost simultaneously with their appearance on 
Halmahera, the familiar archaeological hallmarks of the Austronesian 
expansion — pigs, chickens, dogs, red-slipped pottery, and adzes of ground 
stone and of giant clamshells — appear in the New Guinea region. But two 
features distinguish the Austronesians' arrival there from their earlier 
arrival in the Philippines and Indonesia. 

The first feature consists of pottery designs, which are aesthetic features 
of no economic significance but which do let archaeologists immediately 
recognize an early Austronesian site. Whereas most early Austronesian 
pottery in the Philippines and Indonesia was undecorated, pottery in the 
New Guinea region was finely decorated with geometric designs arranged 
in horizontal bands. In other respects the pottery preserved the red slip and 
the vessel forms characteristic of earlier Austronesian pottery in Indonesia. 
Evidently, Austronesian settlers in the New Guinea region got the idea of 
"tattooing" their pots, perhaps inspired by geometric designs that they 
had already been using on their bark cloth and body tattoos. This style is 
termed Lapita pottery, after an archaeological site named Lapita, where it 
was described. 

The much more significant distinguishing feature of early Austronesian 
sites in the New Guinea region is their distribution. In contrast to those in 
the Philippines and Indonesia, where even the earliest known Austronesian 


sites are on big islands like Luzon and Borneo and Celebes, sites with Lap- 
ita pottery in the New Guinea region are virtually confined to small islets 
fringing remote larger islands. To date, Lapita pottery has been found at 
only one site (Aitape) on the north coast of New Guinea itself, and at a 
couple of sites in the Solomons. Most Lapita sites of the New Guinea 
region are in the Bismarcks, on islets off the coast of the larger Bismarck 
islands, occasionally on the coasts of the larger islands themselves. Since 
(as we shall see) the makers of Lapita pottery were capable of sailing thou- 
sands of miles, their failure to transfer their villages a few miles to the large 
Bismarck islands, or a few dozen miles to New Guinea, was certainly not 
due to inability to get there. 

The basis of Lapita subsistence can be reconstructed from the garbage 
excavated by archaeologists at Lapita sites. Lapita people depended heav- 
ily on seafood, including fish, porpoises, sea turtles, sharks, and shellfish. 
They had pigs, chickens, and dogs and ate the nuts of many trees (includ- 
ing coconuts). While they probably also ate the usual Austronesian root 
crops, such as taro and yams, evidence of those crops is hard to obtain, 
because hard nut shells are much more likely than soft roots to persist for 
thousands of years in garbage heaps. 

Naturally, it is impossible to prove directly that the people who made 
Lapita pots spoke an Austronesian language. However, two facts make 
this inference virtually certain. First, except for the decorations on the 
pots, the pots themselves and their associated cultural paraphernalia are 
similar to the cultural remains found at Indonesian and Philippine sites 
ancestral to modern Austronesian-speaking societies. Second, Lapita pot- 
tery also appears on remote Pacific islands with no previous human inhab- 
itants, with no evidence of a major second wave of settlement subsequent 
to that bringing Lapita pots, and where the modern inhabitants speak an 
Austronesian language (more of this below). Hence Lapita pottery may be 
safely assumed to mark Austronesians' arrival in the New Guinea region. 

What were those Austronesian pot makers doing on islets adjacent to 
bigger islands? They were probably living in the same way as modern pot 
makers lived until recently on islets in the New Guinea region. In 1972 I 
visited such a village on Malai Islet, in the Siassi island group, off the 
medium-sized island of Umboi, off the larger Bismarck island of New Brit- 
ain. When I stepped ashore on Malai in search of birds, knowing nothing 
about the people there, I was astonished by the sight that greeted me. 


Instead of the usual small village of low huts, surrounded by large gardens 
sufficient to feed the village, and with a few canoes drawn up on the beach, 
most of the area of Malai was occupied by two-story wooden houses side 
by side, leaving no ground available for gardens — the New Guinea equiva- 
lent of downtown Manhattan. On the beach were rows of big canoes. It 
turned out that Malai islanders, besides being fishermen, were also special- 
ized potters, carvers, and traders, who lived by making beautifully decor- 
ated pots and wooden bowls, transporting them in their canoes to larger 
islands and exchanging their wares for pigs, dogs, vegetables, and other 
necessities. Even the timber for Malai canoes was obtained by trade from 
villagers on nearby Umboi Island, since Malai does not have trees big 
enough to be fashioned into canoes. 

In the days before European shipping, trade between islands in the New 
Guinea region was monopolized by such specialized groups of canoe- 
building potters, skilled in sailing without navigational instruments, and 
living on offshore islets or occasionally in mainland coastal villages. By the 
time I reached Malai in 1972, those indigenous trade networks had col- 
lapsed or contracted, partly because of competition from European motor 
vessels and aluminum pots, partly because the Australian colonial govern- 
ment forbade long-distance canoe voyaging after some accidents in which 
traders were drowned. I would guess that the Lapita potters were the inter- 
island traders of the New Guinea region in the centuries after 1600 B.C. 

The spread of Austronesian languages to the north coast of New Guinea 
itself, and over even the largest Bismarck and Solomon islands, must have 
occurred mostly after Lapita times, since Lapita sites themselves were con- 
centrated on Bismarck islets. Not until around A.D. 1 did pottery derived 
from the Lapita style appear on the south side of New Guinea's southeast 
peninsula. When Europeans began exploring New Guinea in the late 19th 
century, all the remainder of New Guinea's south coast still supported pop- 
ulations only of Papuan-language speakers, even though Austronesian- 
speaking populations were established not only on the southeastern penin- 
sula but also on the Aru and Kei Islands (lying 70-80 miles off western 
New Guinea's south coast). Austronesians thus had thousands of years in 
which to colonize New Guinea's interior and its southern coast from 
nearby bases, but they never did so. Even their colonization of North New 
Guinea's coastal fringe was more linguistic than genetic: all northern 
coastal peoples remained predominantly New Guineans in their genes. At 


most, some of them merely adopted Austronesian languages, possibly in 
order to communicate with the long-distance traders who linked societies. 

THUS, THE OUTCOME of the Austronesian expansion in the New 
Guinea region was opposite to that in Indonesia and the Philippines. In 
the latter region the indigenous population disappeared — presumably 
driven off, killed, infected, or assimilated by the invaders. In the former 
region the indigenous population mostly kept the invaders out. The invad- 
ers (the Austronesians) were the same in both cases, and the indigenous 
populations may also have been genetically similar to each other, if the 
original Indonesian population supplanted by Austronesians really was 
related to New Guineans, as I suggested earlier. Why the opposite out- 

The answer becomes obvious when one considers the differing cultural 
circumstances of Indonesia's and New Guinea's indigenous populations. 
Before Austronesians arrived, most of Indonesia was thinly occupied by 
hunter-gatherers lacking even polished stone tools. In contrast, food pro- 
duction had already been established for thousands of years in the New 
Guinea highlands, and probably in the New Guinea lowlands and in the 
Bismarcks and Solomons as well. The New Guinea highlands supported 
some of the densest populations of Stone Age people anywhere in the mod- 
ern world. 

Austronesians enjoyed few advantages in competing with those estab- 
lished New Guinean populations. Some of the crops on which Austrone- 
sians subsisted, such as taro, yams, and bananas, had probably already 
been independently domesticated in New Guinea before Austronesians 
arrived. The New Guineans readily integrated Austronesian chickens, 
dogs, and especially pigs into their food-producing economies. New Guin- 
eans already had polished stone tools. They were at least as resistant to 
tropical diseases as were Austronesians, because they carried the same five 
types of genetic protections against malaria as did Austronesians, and 
some or all of those genes evolved independently in New Guinea. New 
Guineans were already accomplished seafarers, although not as accom- 
plished as the makers of Lapita pottery. Tens of thousands of years before 
the arrival of Austronesians, New Guineans had colonized the Bismarck 
and Solomon Archipelagoes, and a trade in obsidian (a volcanic stone suit- 
able for making sharp tools) was thriving in the Bismarcks at least 18,000 



years before the Austronesians arrived. New Guineans even seem to have 
expanded recently westward against the Austronesian tide, into eastern 
Indonesia, where languages spoken on the islands of North Halmahera 
and of Timor are typical Papuan languages related to some languages of 
western New Guinea. 

In short, the variable outcomes of the Austronesian expansion strikingly 
illustrate the role of food production in human population movements. 
Austronesian food-producers migrated into two regions (New Guinea and 
Indonesia) occupied by resident peoples who were probably related to 
each other. The residents of Indonesia were still hunter-gatherers, while 
the residents of New Guinea were already food producers and had devel- 
oped many of the concomitants of food production (dense populations, 
disease resistance, more advanced technology, and so on). As a result, 
while the Austronesian expansion swept away the original Indonesians, it 
failed to make much headway in the New Guinea region, just as it also 
failed to make headway against Austroasiatic and Tai-Kadai food produc- 
ers in tropical Southeast Asia. 

We have now traced the Austronesian expansion through Indonesia and 
up to the shores of New Guinea and tropical Southeast Asia. In Chapter 
19 we shall trace it across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar, while in Chap- 
ter 15 we saw that ecological difficulties kept Austronesians from estab- 
lishing themselves in northern and western Australia. The expansion's 
remaining thrust began when the Lapita potters sailed far eastward into 
the Pacific beyond the Solomons, into an island realm that no other 
humans had reached previously. Around 1200 B.C. Lapita potsherds, the 
familiar triumvirate of pigs and chickens and dogs, and the usual other 
archaeological hallmarks of Austronesians appeared on the Pacific archi- 
pelagoes of Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, over a thousand miles east of the Solo- 
mons. Early in the Christian era, most of those same hallmarks (with the 
notable exception of pottery) appeared on the islands of eastern Polynesia, 
including the Societies and Marquesas. Further long overwater canoe voy- 
ages brought settlers north to Hawaii, east to Pitcairn and Easter Islands, 
and southwest to New Zealand. The native inhabitants of most of those 
islands today are the Polynesians, who thus are the direct descendants of 
the Lapita potters. They speak Austronesian languages closely related to 
those of the New Guinea region, and their main crops are the Austronesian 
package that included taro, yams, bananas, coconuts, and breadfruit. 

With the occupation of the Chatham Islands off New Zealand around 


A.D. 1400, barely a century before European "explorers" entered the 
Pacific, the task of exploring the Pacific was finally completed by Asians. 
Their tradition of exploration, lasting tens of thousands of years, had 
begun when Wiwor's ancestors spread through Indonesia to New Guinea 
and Australia. It ended only when it had run out of targets and almost 
every habitable Pacific island had been occupied. 

To ANYONE INTERESTED in world history, human societies of East 
Asia and the Pacific are instructive, because they provide so many exam- 
ples of how environment molds history. Depending on their geographic 
homeland, East Asian and Pacific peoples differed in their access to domes- 
ticable wild plant and animal species and in their connectedness to other 
peoples. Again and again, people with access to the prerequisites for food 
production, and with a location favoring diffusion of technology from 
elsewhere, replaced peoples lacking these advantages. Again and again, 
when a single wave of colonists spread out over diverse environments, 
their descendants developed in separate ways, depending on those environ- 
mental differences. 

For instance, we have seen that South Chinese developed indigenous 
food production and technology, received writing and still more technol- 
ogy and political structures from North China, and went on to colonize 
tropical Southeast Asia and Taiwan, largely replacing the former inhabit- 
ants of those areas. Within Southeast Asia, among the descendants or rela- 
tives of those food-producing South Chinese colonists, the Yumbri in the 
mountain rain forests of northeastern Thailand and Laos reverted to living 
as hunter-gatherers, while the Yumbri's close relatives the Vietnamese 
(speaking a language in the same sub-subfamily of Austroasiatic as the 
Yumbri language) remained food producers in the rich Red Delta and 
established a vast metal-based empire. Similarly, among Austronesian emi- 
grant farmers from Taiwan and Indonesia, the Punan in the rain forests of 
Borneo were forced to turn back to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, while 
their relatives living on Java's rich volcanic soils remained food producers, 
founded a kingdom under the influence of India, adopted writing, and 
built the great Buddhist monument at Borobudur. The Austronesians who 
went on to colonize Polynesia became isolated from East Asian metallurgy 
and writing and hence remained without writing or metal. As we saw in 
Chapter 2, though, Polynesian political and social organization and econo- 


mies underwent great diversification in different environments. Within a 
millennium, East Polynesian colonists had reverted to hunting-gathering 
on the Chathams while building a protostate with intensive food produc- 
tion on Hawaii. 

When Europeans at last arrived, their technological and other advan- 
tages enabled them to establish temporary colonial domination over most 
of tropical Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. However, indigenous 
germs and food producers prevented Europeans from settling most of this 
region in significant numbers. Within this area, only New Zealand, New 
Caledonia, and Hawaii — the largest and most remote islands, lying far- 
thest from the equator and hence in the most nearly temperate (Europe- 
like) climates — now support large European populations. Thus, unlike 
Australia and the Americas, East Asia and most Pacific islands remain 
occupied by East Asian and Pacific peoples. 





M 13,000 years has been the one resulting from the recent collision 
between Old World and New World societies. Its most dramatic and deci- 
sive moment, as we saw in Chapter 3, occurred when Pizarro's tiny army 
of Spaniards captured the Inca emperor Atahuallpa, absolute ruler of the 
largest, richest, most populous, and administratively and technologically 
most advanced Native American state. Atahuallpa's capture symbolizes 
the European conquest of the Americas, because the same mix of proxi- 
mate factors that caused it was also responsible for European conquests of 
other Native American societies. Let us now return to that collision of 
hemispheres, applying what we have learned since Chapter 3. The basic 
question to be answered is: why did Europeans reach and conquer the 
lands of Native Americans, instead of vice versa? Our starting point will 
be a comparison of Eurasian and Native American societies as of A.D. 
1492, the year of Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas. 

OUR COMPARISON BEGINS with food production, a major determi- 
nant of local population size and societal complexity — hence an ultimate 
factor behind the conquest. The most glaring difference between American 


and Eurasian food production involved big domestic mammal species. In 
Chapter 9 we encountered Eurasia's 13 species, which became its chief 
source of animal protein (meat and milk), wool, and hides, its main mode 
of land transport of people and goods, its indispensable vehicles of war- 
fare, and (by drawing plows and providing manure) a big enhancer of crop 
production. Until waterwheels and windmills began to replace Eurasia's 
mammals in medieval times, they were also the major source of its "indus- 
trial" power beyond human muscle power — for example, for turning 
grindstones and operating water lifts. In contrast, the Americas had only 
one species of big domestic mammal, the llama / alpaca, confined to a 
small area of the Andes and the adjacent Peruvian coast. While it was used 
for meat, wool, hides, and goods transport, it never yielded milk for 
human consumption, never bore a rider, never pulled a cart or a plow, and 
never served as a power source or vehicle of warfare. 

That's an enormous set of differences between Eurasian and Native 
American societies — due largely to the Late Pleistocene extinction (exter- 
mination?) of most of North and South America's former big wild mam- 
mal species. If it had not been for those extinctions, modern history might 
have taken a different course. When Cortes and his bedraggled adventur- 
ers landed on the Mexican coast in 1519, they might have been driven into 
the sea by thousands of Aztec cavalry mounted on domesticated native 
American horses. Instead of the Aztecs' dying of smallpox, the Spaniards 
might have been wiped out by American germs transmitted by disease- 
resistant Aztecs. American civilizations resting on animal power might 
have been sending their own conquistadores to ravage Europe. But those 
hypothetical outcomes were foreclosed by mammal extinctions thousands 
of years earlier. 

Those extinctions left Eurasia with many more wild candidates for 
domestication than the Americas offered. Most candidates disqualify 
themselves as potential domesticates for any of half a dozen reasons. 
Hence Eurasia ended up with its 13 species of big domestic mammals and 
the Americas with just its one very local species. Both hemispheres also 
had domesticated species of birds and small mammals — the turkey, guinea 
pig, and Muscovy duck very locally and the dog more widely in the Ameri- 
cas; chickens, geese, ducks, cats, dogs, rabbits, honeybees, silkworms, and 
some others in Eurasia. But the significance of all those species of small 
domestic animals was trivial compared with that of the big ones. 

Eurasia and the Americas also differed with respect to plant food pro- 


duction, though the disparity here was less marked than for animal food 
production. In 1492 agriculture was widespread in Eurasia. Among the 
few Eurasian hunter-gatherers lacking both crops and domestic animals 
were the Ainu of northern Japan, Siberian societies without reindeer, and 
small hunter-gatherer groups scattered through the forests of India and 
tropical Southeast Asia and trading with neighboring farmers. Some other 
Eurasian societies, notably the Central Asian pastoralists and the reindeer- 
herding Lapps and Samoyeds of the Arctic, had domestic animals but little 
or no agriculture. Virtually all other Eurasian societies engaged in agricul- 
ture as well as in herding animals. 

Agriculture was also widespread in the Americas, but hunter-gatherers 
occupied a larger fraction of the Americas' area than of Eurasia's. Those 
regions of the Americas without food production included all of northern 
North America and southern South America, the Canadian Great Plains, 
and all of western North America except for small areas of the U.S. South- 
west that supported irrigation agriculture. It is striking that the areas of 
Native America without food production included what today, after Euro- 
peans' arrival, are some of the most productive farmlands and pastures of 
both North and South America: the Pacific states of the United States, 
Canada's wheat belt, the pampas of Argentina, and the Mediterranean 
zone of Chile. The former absence of food production in these lands was 
due entirely to their local paucity of domesticable wild animals and plants, 
and to geographic and ecological barriers that prevented the crops and the 
few domestic animal species of other parts of the Americas from arriving. 
Those lands became productive not only for European settlers but also, in 
some cases, for Native Americans, as soon as Europeans introduced suit- 
able domestic animals and crops. For instance, Native American societies 
became renowned for their mastery of horses, and in some cases of cattle 
and sheepherding, in parts of the Great Plains, the western United States, 
and the Argentine pampas. Those mounted plains warriors and Navajo 
sheepherders and weavers now figure prominently in white Americans' 
image of American Indians, but the basis for that image was created only 
after 1492. These examples demonstrate that the sole missing ingredients 
required to sustain food production in large areas of the Americas were 
domestic animals and crops themselves. 

In those parts of the Americas that did support Native American agri- 
culture, it was constrained by five major disadvantages vis-a-vis Eurasian 
agriculture: widespread dependence on protein-poor corn, instead of 


Eurasia's diverse and protein-rich cereals; hand planting of individual 
seeds, instead of broadcast sowing; tilling by hand instead of plowing by 
animals, which enables one person to cultivate a much larger area, and 
which also permits cultivation of some fertile but tough soils and sods that 
are difficult to till by hand (such as those of the North American Great 
Plains); lack of animal manuring to increase soil fertility; and just human 
muscle power, instead of animal power, for agricultural tasks such as 
threshing, grinding, and irrigation. These differences suggest that Eurasian 
agriculture as of 1492 may have yielded on the average more calories and 
protein per person-hour of labor than Native American agriculture did. 

SUCH DIFFERENCES IN food production constituted a major ultimate 
cause of the disparities between Eurasian and Native American societies. 
Among the resulting proximate factors behind the conquest, the most 
important included differences in germs, technology, political organiza- 
tion, and writing. Of these, the one linked most directly to the differences 
in food production was germs. The infectious diseases that regularly vis- 
ited crowded Eurasian societies, and to which many Eurasians conse- 
quently developed immune or genetic resistance, included all of history's 
most lethal killers: smallpox, measles, influenza, plague, tuberculosis, 
typhus, cholera, malaria, and others. Against that grim list, the sole crowd 
infectious diseases that can be attributed with certainty to pre-Columbian 
Native American societies were nonsyphilitic treponemas. (As I explained 
in Chapter 1 1 , it remains uncertain whether syphilis arose in Eurasia or in 
the Americas, and the claim that human tuberculosis was present in the 
Americas before Columbus is in my opinion unproven.) 

This continental difference in harmful germs resulted paradoxically 
from the difference in useful livestock. Most of the microbes responsible 
for the infectious diseases of crowded human societies evolved from very 
similar ancestral microbes causing infectious diseases of the domestic ani- 
mals with which food producers began coming into daily close contact 
around 10,000 years ago. Eurasia harbored many domestic animal species 
and hence developed many such microbes, while the Americas had very 
few of each. Other reasons why Native American societies evolved so few 
lethal microbes were that villages, which provide ideal breeding grounds 
for epidemic diseases, arose thousands of years later in the Americas than 
in Eurasia; and that the three regions of the New World supporting urban 


societies (the Andes, Mesoamerica, and the U.S. Southeast) were never 
connected by fast, high-volume trade on the scale that brought plague, 
influenza, and possibly smallpox to Europe from Asia. As a result, even 
malaria and yellow fever, the infectious diseases that eventually became 
major obstacles to European colonization of the American tropics, and 
that posed the biggest barrier to the construction of the Panama Canal, 
are not American diseases at all but are caused by microbes of Old World 
tropical origin, introduced to the Americas by Europeans. 

Rivaling germs as proximate factors behind Europe's conquest of the 
Americas were the differences in all aspects of technology. These differ- 
ences stemmed ultimately from Eurasia's much longer history of densely 
populated, economically specialized, politically centralized, interacting 
and competing societies dependent on food production. Five areas of tech- 
nology may be singled out: 

First, metals — initially copper, then bronze, and finally iron — were used 
for tools in all complex Eurasian societies as of 1492. In contrast, although 
copper, silver, gold, and alloys were used for ornaments in the Andes and 
some other parts of the Americas, stone and wood and bone were still the 
principal materials for tools in all Native American societies, which made 
only limited local use of copper tools. 

Second, military technology was far more potent in Eurasia than in the 
Americas. European weapons were steel swords, lances, and daggers, sup- 
plemented by small firearms and artillery, while body armor and helmets 
were also made of solid steel or else of chain mail. In place of steel, Native 
Americans used clubs and axes of stone or wood (occasionally copper in 
the Andes), slings, bows and arrows, and quilted armor, constituting much 
less effective protection and weaponry. In addition, Native American 
armies had no animals to oppose to horses, whose value for assaults and 
fast transport gave Europeans an overwhelming advantage until some 
Native American societies themselves adopted them. 

Third, Eurasian societies enjoyed a huge advantage in their sources of 
power to operate machines. The earliest advance over human muscle 
power was the use of animals — cattle, horses, and donkeys — to pull plows 
and to turn wheels for grinding grain, raising water, and irrigating or 
draining fields. Waterwheels appeared in Roman times and then prolifer- 
ated, along with tidal mills and windmills, in the Middle Ages. Coupled to 
systems of geared wheels, those engines harnessing water and wind power 
were used not only to grind grain and move water but also to serve myriad 


manufacturing purposes, including crushing sugar, driving blast furnace 
bellows, grinding ores, making paper, polishing stone, pressing oil, pro- 
ducing salt, producing textiles, and sawing wood. It is conventional to 
define the Industrial Revolution arbitrarily as beginning with the har- 
nessing of steam power in 18th-century England, but in fact an industrial 
revolution based on water and wind power had begun already in medieval 
times in many parts of Europe. As of 1492, all of those operations to 
which animal, water, and wind power were being applied in Eurasia were 
still being carried out by human muscle power in the Americas. 

Long before the wheel began to be used in power conversion in Eurasia, 
it had become the basis of most Eurasian land transport — not only for 
animal-drawn vehicles but also for human-powered wheelbarrows, which 
enabled one or more people, still using just human muscle power, to trans- 
port much greater weights than they could have otherwise. Wheels were 
also adopted in Eurasian pottery making and in clocks. None of those uses 
of the wheel was adopted in the Americas, where wheels are attested only 
in Mexican ceramic toys. 

The remaining area of technology to be mentioned is sea transport. 
Many Eurasian societies developed large sailing ships, some of them capa- 
ble of sailing against the wind and crossing the ocean, equipped with sex- 
tants, magnetic compasses, sternpost rudders, and cannons. In capacity, 
speed, maneuverability, and seaworthiness, those Eurasian ships were far 
superior to the rafts that carried out trade between the New World's most 
advanced societies, those of the Andes and Mesoamerica. Those rafts 
sailed with the wind along the Pacific coast. Pizarro's ship easily ran down 
and captured such a raft on his first voyage toward Peru. 

IN ADDITION TO their germs and technology, Eurasian and Native 
American societies differed in their political organization. By late medieval 
or Renaissance times, most of Eurasia had come under the rule of orga- 
nized states. Among these, the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Chinese states, 
the Mogul state of India, and the Mongol state at its peak in the 13th 
century started out as large polyglot amalgamations formed by the con- 
quest of other states. For that reason they are generally referred to as 
empires. Many Eurasian states and empires had official religions that con- 
tributed to state cohesion, being invoked to legitimize the political leader- 
ship and to sanction wars against other peoples. Tribal and band societies 


in Eurasia were largely confined to the Arctic reindeer herders, the Siberian 
hunter-gatherers, and the hunter-gatherer enclaves in the Indian subconti- 
nent and tropical Southeast Asia. 

The Americas had two empires, those of the Aztecs and Incas, which 
resembled their Eurasian counterparts in size, population, polyglot make- 
up, official religions, and origins in the conquest of smaller states. In the 
Americas those were the sole two political units capable of mobilizing 
resources for public works or war on the scale of many Eurasian states, 
whereas seven European states (Spain, Portugal, England, France, Hol- 
land, Sweden, and Denmark) had the resources to acquire American colo- 
nies between 1492 and 1666. The Americas also held many chiefdoms 
(some of them virtually small states) in tropical South America, Meso- 
america beyond Aztec rule, and the U.S. Southeast. The rest of the Ameri- 
cas was organized only at the tribal or band level. 

The last proximate factor to be discussed is writing. Most Eurasian 
states had literate bureaucracies, and in some a significant fraction of the 
populace other than bureaucrats was also literate. Writing empowered 
European societies by facilitating political administration and economic 
exchanges, motivating and guiding exploration and conquest, and making 
available a range of information and human experience extending into 
remote places and times. In contrast, use of writing in the Americas was 
confined to the elite in a small area of Mesoamerica. The Inca Empire 
employed an accounting system and mnemonic device based on knots 
(termed quipu), but it could not have approached writing as a vehicle for 
transmitting detailed information. 

THUS, EURASIAN SOCIETIES in the time of Columbus enjoyed big 
advantages over Native American societies in food production, germs, 
technology (including weapons), political organization, and writing. These 
were the main factors tipping the outcome of the post-Columbian colli- 
sions. But those differences as of A.D. 1492 represent just one snapshot of 
historical trajectories that had extended over at least 13,000 years in the 
Americas, and over a much longer time in Eurasia. For the Americas, in 
particular, the 1492 snapshot captures the end of the independent trajec- 
tory of Native Americans. Let us now trace out the earlier stages of those 



Table 18.1 summarizes approximate dates of the appearance of key 
developments in the main "homelands" of each hemisphere (the Fertile 
Crescent and China in Eurasia, the Andes and Amazonia and Mesoamer- 
ica in the Americas). It also includes the trajectory for the minor New 
World homeland of the eastern United States, and that for England, which 
is not a homeland at all but is listed to illustrate how rapidly developments 
spread from the Fertile Crescent. 

This table is sure to horrify any knowledgeable scholar, because it 
reduces exceedingly complex histories to a few seemingly precise dates. In 
reality, all of those dates are merely attempts to label arbitrary points along 
a continuum. For example, more significant than the date of the first metal 
tool found by some archaeologist is the time when a significant fraction of 
all tools was made of metal, but how common must metal tools be to rate 
as "widespread"? Dates for the appearance of the same development may 
differ among different parts of the same homeland. For instance, within 
the Andean region pottery appears about 1,300 years earlier in coastal 
Ecuador (3100 B.C.) than in Peru (1800 B.C.). Some dates, such as those 
for the rise of chiefdoms, are more difficult to infer from the archaeological 
record than are dates of artifacts like pottery or metal tools. Some of the 
dates in Table 18.1 are very uncertain, especially those for the onset of 
American food production. Nevertheless, as long as one understands that 
the table is a simplification, it is useful for comparing continental histories. 

The table suggests that food production began to provide a large frac- 
tion of human diets around 5,000 years earlier in the Eurasian homelands 
than in those of the Americas. A caveat must be mentioned immediately: 
while there is no doubt about the antiquity of food production in Eurasia, 
there is controversy about its onset in the Americas. In particular, archae- 
ologists often cite considerably older claimed dates for domesticated plants 
at Coxcatlan Cave in Mexico, at Guitarrero Cave in Peru, and at some 
other American sites than the dates given in the table. Those claims are 
now being reevaluated for several reasons: recent direct radiocarbon dat- 
ing of crop remains themselves has in some cases been yielding younger 
dates; the older dates previously reported were based instead on charcoal 
thought to be contemporaneous with the plant remains, but possibly not 
so; and the status of some of the older plant remains as crops or just as 
collected wild plants is uncertain. Still, even if plant domestication did 
begin earlier in the Americas than the dates shown in Table 18.1, agricul- 


table 18.1 Historical Trajectories of Eurasia and the Americas 

Approximate Date of Adoption Eurasia 





Plant domestication 

ojUU B.C. 

Dy / jUU B.C. 


Animal domestication 


D} / JUu B.C. 



/UUU B.C. 

by /jUU B.C. 

jjUU B.C. 

\ fin „ 

yuuu b.c. 

by /JJUU B.C. 

jUUU B.C. 


jjUU B.C. 

4UUU B.C. 

ZjUU B.C. 

Widespread metal tools 

4000 B.C. 

2000 B.C. 

2000 B.C. 

or artifacts (copper 

and/or bronze) 


3700 B.C. 

2000 b.c. 

500 A.D. 


3200 b.c 

by 1300 B.C. 

A.D. 43 

Widespread iron tools 

900 b.c. 

500 b.c. 

650 b.c. 

This table gives approximate dates of widespread adoption of significant developments 
in three Eurasian and four Native American areas. Dates for animal domestication neglect 
dogs, which were domesticated earlier than food-producing animals in both Eurasia and 

ture surely did not provide the basis for most human calorie intake and 
sedentary existence in American homelands until much later than in Eur- 
asian homelands. 

As we saw in Chapters 5 and 10, only a few relatively small areas of 
each hemisphere acted as a "homeland" where food production first arose 
and from which it then spread. Those homelands were the Fertile Crescent 
and China in Eurasia, and the Andes and Amazonia, Mesoamerica, and 
the eastern United States in the Americas. The rate of spread of key devel- 
opments is especially well understood for Europe, thanks to the many 
archaeologists at work there. As Table 18.1 summarizes for England, once 
food production and village living had arrived from the Fertile Crescent 
after a long lag (5,000 years), the subsequent lag for England's adoption 
of chiefdoms, states, writing, and especially metal tools was much shorter: 
2,000 years for the first widespread metal tools of copper and bronze, and 
only 250 years for widespread iron tools. Evidently, it was much easier for 
one society of already sedentary farmers to "borrow" metallurgy from 


Native America 




tastern U.b. 

by 3000 B.C. 

3000 b.c. 

by 3000 b.c. 

2500 b.c. 

3500 B.C. 


500 B.C. 

3100-1800 b.c. 

6000 b.c. 

1500 b.c. 

2500 b.c. 

3100-1800 b.c. 

6000 b.c. 

1500 b.c. 

500 b.c. 

by 1500 b.c. 

A.D. 1 

1500 b.c. 

200 b.c. 

A.D. 1000 

A.D. 1 

300 b.c. 

600 b.c. 

the Americas. Chiefdoms are inferred from archaeological evidence, such as ranked burials, 
architecture, and settlement patterns. The table greatly simplifies a complex mass of historical 
facts: see the text for some of the many important caveats. 

another such society than for nomadic hunter-gatherers to "borrow" food 
production from sedentary farmers (or to be replaced by the farmers). 

WHY WERE THE trajectories of all key developments shifted to later 
dates in the Americas than in Eurasia? Four groups of reasons suggest 
themselves: the later start, more limited suite of wild animals and plants 
available for domestication, greater barriers to diffusion, and possibly 
smaller or more isolated areas of dense human populations in the Americas 
than in Eurasia. 

As for Eurasia's head start, humans have occupied Eurasia for about a 
million years, far longer than they have lived in the Americas. According 
to the archaeological evidence discussed in Chapter 1, humans entered the 
Americas at Alaska only around 12,000 B.C., spread south of the Cana- 
dian ice sheets as Clovis hunters a few centuries before 11,000 B.C., and 
reached the southern tip of South America by 10,000 B.C. Even if the dis- 


puted claims of older human occupation sites in the Americas prove valid, 
those postulated pre-Clovis inhabitants remained for unknown reasons 
very sparsely distributed and did not launch a Pleistocene proliferation of 
hunter-gatherer societies with expanding populations, technology, and art 
as in the Old World. Food production was already arising in the Fertile 
Crescent only 1,500 years after the time when Clovis-derived hunter-gath- 
erers were just reaching southern South America. 

Several possible consequences of that Eurasian head start deserve con- 
sideration. First, could it have taken a long time after 11,000 B.C. for the 
Americas to fill up with people? When one works out the likely numbers 
involved, one finds that this effect would make only a trivial contribution 
to the Americas' 5,000-year lag in food-producing villages. The calcula- 
tions given in Chapter 1 tell us that even if a mere 100 pioneering Native 
Americans had crossed the Canadian border into the lower United States 
and increased at a rate of only 1 percent per year, they would have satu- 
rated the Americas with hunter-gatherers within 1,000 years. Spreading 
south at a mere one mile per month, those pioneers would have reached 
the southern tip of South America only 700 years after crossing the Cana- 
dian border. Those postulated rates of spread and of population increase 
are very low compared with actual known rates for peoples occupying 
previously uninhabited or sparsely inhabited lands. Hence the Americas 
were probably fully occupied by hunter-gatherers within a few centuries 
of the arrival of the first colonists. 

Second, could a large part of the 5,000-year lag have represented the 
time that the first Americans required to become familiar with the new 
local plant species, animal species, and rock sources that they encoun- 
tered? If we can again reason by analogy with New Guinean and Polyne- 
sian hunter-gatherers and farmers occupying previously unfamiliar 
environments — such as Maori colonists of New Zealand or Tudawhe colo- 
nists of New Guinea's Karimui Basin — the colonists probably discovered 
the best rock sources and learned to distinguish useful from poisonous 
wild plants and animals in much less than a century. 

Third, what about Eurasians' head start in developing locally appro- 
priate technology? The early farmers of the Fertile Crescent and China 
were heirs to the technology that behaviorially modern Homo sapiens had 
been developing to exploit local resources in those areas for tens of thou- 
sands of years. For instance, the stone sickles, underground storage pits, 
and other technology that hunter-gatherers of the Fertile Crescent had 


been evolving to utilize wild cereals were available to the first cereal farm- 
ers of the Fertile Crescent. In contrast, the first settlers of the Americas 
arrived in Alaska with equipment appropriate to the Siberian Arctic tun- 
dra. They had to invent for themselves the equipment suitable to each 
new habitat they encountered. That technology lag may have contributed 
significantly to the delay in Native American developments. 

An even more obvious factor behind the delay was the wild animals and 
plants available for domestication. As I discussed in Chapter 6, when 
hunter-gatherers adopt food production, it is not because they foresee the 
potential benefits awaiting their remote descendants but because incipient 
food production begins to offer advantages over the hunter-gatherer life- 
style. Early food production was less competitive with hunting-gathering 
in the Americas than in the Fertile Crescent or China, partly owing to 
the Americas' virtual lack of domesticable wild mammals. Hence early 
American farmers remained dependent on wild animals for animal protein 
and necessarily remained part-time hunter-gatherers, whereas in both the 
Fertile Crescent and China animal domestication followed plant domesti- 
cation very closely in time to create a food producing package that quickly 
won out over hunting-gathering. In addition, Eurasian domestic animals 
made Eurasian agriculture itself more competitive by providing fertilizer, 
and eventually by drawing plows. 

Features of American wild plants also contributed to the lesser competi- 
tiveness of Native American food production. That conclusion is clearest 
for the eastern United States, where less than a dozen crops were domesti- 
cated, including small-seeded grains but no large-seeded grains, pulses, 
fiber crops, or cultivated fruit or nut trees. It is also clear for Mesoameri-i 
ca's staple grain of corn, which spread to become a dominant crop else- 
where in the Americas as well. Whereas the Fertile Crescent's wild wheat 
and barley evolved into crops with minimal changes and within a few cen- 
turies, wild teosinte may have required several thousand years to evolve 
into corn, having to undergo drastic changes in its reproductive biology 
and energy allocation to seed production, loss of the seed's rock-hard cas- 
ings, and an enormous increase in cob size. 

As a result, even if one accepts the recently postulated later dates for 
the onset of Native American plant domestication, about 1,500 or 2,000 
years would have elapsed between that onset (about 3000-2500 B.C.) and 
widespread year-round villages (1800-500 B.C.) in Mesoamerica, the 
inland Andes, and the eastern United States. Native American farming 


served for a long time just as a small supplement to food acquisition by 
hunting-gathering, and supported only a sparse population. If one accepts 
the traditional, earlier dates for the onset of American plant domestica- 
tion, then 5,000 years instead of 1,500 or 2,000 years elapsed before food 
production supported villages. In contrast, villages were closely associated 
in time with the rise of food production in much of Eurasia. (The hunter- 
gatherer lifestyle itself was sufficiently productive to support villages even 
before the adoption of agriculture in parts of both hemispheres, such as 
Japan and the Fertile Crescent in the Old World, and coastal Ecuador and 
Amazonia in the New World.) The limitations imposed by locally available 
domesticates in the New World are well illustrated by the transformations 
of Native American societies themselves when other crops or animals 
arrived, whether from elsewhere in the Americas or from Eurasia. Exam- 
ples include the effects of corn's arrival in the eastern United States and 
Amazonia, the llama's adoption in the northern Andes after its domestica- 
tion to the south, and the horse's appearance in many parts of North and 
South America. 

In addition to Eurasia's head start and wild animal and plant species, 
developments in Eurasia were also accelerated by the easier diffusion of 
animals, plants, ideas, technology, and people in Eurasia than in the Amer- 
icas, as a result of several sets of geographic and ecological factors. Euras- 
ia's east-west major axis, unlike the Americas' north-south major axis, 
permitted diffusion without change in latitude and associated environmen- 
tal variables. In contrast to Eurasia's consistent east-west breadth, the 
New World was constricted over the whole length of Central America and 
especially at Panama. Not least, the Americas were more fragmented by 
areas unsuitable for food production or for dense human populations. 
These ecological barriers included the rain forests of the Panamanian isth- 
mus separating Mesoamerican societies from Andean and Amazonian 
societies; the deserts of northern Mexico separating Mesoamerica from 
U.S. southwestern and southeastern societies; dry areas of Texas separat- 
ing the U.S. Southwest from the Southeast; and the deserts and high moun- 
tains fencing off U.S. Pacific coast areas that would otherwise have been 
suitable for food production. As a result, there was no diffusion of domes- 
tic animals, writing, or political entities, and limited or slow diffusion of 
crops and technology, between the New World centers of Mesoamerica, 
the eastern United States, and the Andes and Amazonia. 

Some specific consequences of these barriers within the Americas 


3 6 7 

deserve mention. Food production never diffused from the U.S. Southwest 
and Mississippi Valley to the modern American breadbaskets of California 
and Oregon, where Native American societies remained hunter-gatherers 
merely because they lacked appropriate domesticates. The llama, guinea 
pig, and potato of the Andean highlands never reached the Mexican high- 
lands, so Mesoamerica and North America remained without domestic 
mammals except for dogs. Conversely, the domestic sunflower of the east- 
ern United States never reached Mesoamerica, and the domestic turkey of 
Mesoamerica never made it to South America or the eastern United States. 
Mesoamerican corn and beans took 3,000 and 4,000 years, respectively, 
to cover the 700 miles from Mexico's farmlands to the eastern U.S. farm- 
lands. After corn's arrival in the eastern United States, seven centuries 
more passed before the development of a corn variety productive in North 
American climates triggered the Mississippian emergence. Corn, beans, 
and squash may have taken several thousand years to spread from Meso- 
america to the U.S. Southwest. While Fertile Crescent crops spread west 
and east sufficiently fast to preempt independent domestication of the 
same species or else domestication of closely related species elsewhere, the 
barriers within the Americas gave rise to many such parallel domestica- 
tions of crops. 

As striking as these effects of barriers on crop and livestock diffusion 
are the effects on other features of human societies. Alphabets of ulti- 
mately eastern Mediterranean origin spread throughout all complex socie- 
ties of Eurasia, from England to Indonesia, except for areas of East Asia 
where derivatives of the Chinese writing system took hold. In contrast, the 
New World's sole writing systems, those of Mesoamerica, never spread to 
the complex Andean and eastern U.S. societies that might have adopted 
them. The wheels invented in Mesoamerica as parts of toys never met the 
llamas domesticated in the Andes, to generate wheeled transport for the 
New World. From east to west in the Old World, the Macedonian Empire 
and the Roman Empire both spanned 3,000 miles, the Mongol Empire 
6,000 miles. But the empires and states of Mesoamerica had no political 
relations with, and apparently never even heard of, the chiefdoms of the 
eastern United States 700 miles to the north or the empires and states of 
the Andes 1,200 miles to the south. 

The greater geographic fragmentation of the Americas compared with 
Eurasia is also reflected in distributions of languages. Linguists agree in 
grouping all but a few Eurasian languages into about a dozen language 


families, each consisting of up to several hundred related languages. For 
example, the Indo-European language family, which includes English as 
well as French, Russian, Greek, and Hindi, comprises about 144 lan- 
guages. Quite a few of those families occupy large contiguous areas — in 
the case of Indo-European, the area encompassing most of Europe east 
through much of western Asia to India. Linguistic, historical, and archaeo- 
logical evidence combines to make clear that each of these large, contigu- 
ous distributions stems from a historical expansion of an ancestral 
language, followed by subsequent local linguistic differentiation to form a 
family of related languages (Table 18.2). Most such expansions appear to 
be attributable to the advantages that speakers of the ancestral language, 
belonging to food-producing societies, held over hunter-gatherers. We 
already discussed such historical expansions in Chapters 16 and 17 for 
the Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, and other East Asian language families. 
Among major expansions of the last millennium are those that carried 
Indo-European languages from Europe to the Americas and Australia, the 
Russian language from eastern Europe across Siberia, and Turkish (a lan- 
guage of the Altaic family) from Central Asia westward to Turkey. 

With the exception of the Eskimo-Aleut language family of the Ameri- 
can Arctic and the Na-Dene language family of Alaska, northwestern Can- 
ada, and the U.S. Southwest, the Americas lack examples of large-scale 
language expansions widely accepted by linguists. Most linguists specializ- 
ing in Native American languages do not discern large, clear-cut groupings 
other than Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene. At most, they consider the evi- 
dence sufficient only to group other Native American languages (variously 
estimated to number from 600 to 2,000) into a hundred or more language 
groups or isolated languages. A controversial minority view is that of the 
linguist Joseph Greenberg, who groups all Native American languages 
other than Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene languages into a single large family, 
termed Amerind, with about a dozen subfamilies. 

Some of Greenberg's subfamilies, and some groupings recognized by 
more-traditional linguists, may turn out to be legacies of New World pop- 
ulation expansions driven in part by food production. These legacies may 
include the Uto-Aztecan languages of Mesoamerica and the western 
United States, the Oto-Manguean languages of Mesoamerica, the 
Natchez-Muskogean languages of the U.S. Southeast, and the Arawak lan- 
guages of the West Indies. But the difficulties that linguists have in agreeing 


TABLE 18.2 Language Expansions in the Old World 


or Language 


Driving Force 

6000 or 4000 B.C. Indo-European 

Ukraine or Ana- food production 
tolia -» Europe, or horse-based 
C. Asia, India pastoralism 

6000 b.c-2000 B.C. 
4000 B.c.-present 

Elamo-Dravid- Iran-* India 



3000 B.c.-lOOO B.C. Austronesian 

3000 b.c.-a.d. 1000 Bantu 

3000 b.c.-a.d. 1 

1000 b.c.-a.d. 1500 
a.d. 892 

a.d. 1000-a.d. 1300 




Altaic (Mon- 
gol, Turkish) 

a.d. 1480-a.d. 1638 Russian 

Tibetan Plateau, 
N. China -» 
S. China, 
tropical S.E. 

S. China —Indo- 
nesia, Pacific 

Nigeria and 
-*S. Africa 

S. China ^tropi- 
cal S.E. Asia, 

S. China —> tropi- 
cal S.E. Asia 

Ural Mts. -* 

Asian steppes-* 
Europe, Tur- 
key, China, 

European Russia 
—» Asiatic 

food production 

food production 

food production 
food production 
food production 

food production 



food production 


on groupings of Native American languages reflect the difficulties that 
complex Native American societies themselves faced in expanding within 
the New World. Had any food-producing Native American peoples suc- 
ceeded in spreading far with their crops and livestock and rapidly replac- 
ing hunter-gatherers over a large area, they would have left legacies of 
easily recognized language families, as in Eurasia, and the relationships of 
Native American languages would not be so controversial. 

Thus, we have identified three sets of ultimate factors that tipped the 
advantage to European invaders of the Americas: Eurasia's long head start 
on human settlement; its more effective food production, resulting from 
greater availability of domesticable wild plants and especially of animals; 
and its less formidable geographic and ecological barriers to intracontinen-> 
tal diffusion. A fourth, more speculative ultimate factor is suggested by 
some puzzling non-inventions in the Americas: the non-inventions of writ- 
ing and wheels in complex Andean societies, despite a time depth of those 
societies approximately equal to that of complex Mesoamerican societies 
that did make those inventions; and wheels' confinement to toys and their 
eventual disappearance in Mesoamerica, where they could presumably 
have been useful in human-powered wheelbarrows, as in China. These 
puzzles remind one of equally puzzling non-inventions, or else disappear- 
ances of inventions, in small isolated societies, including Aboriginal Tas- 
mania, Aboriginal Australia, Japan, Polynesian islands, and the American 
Arctic. Of course, the Americas in aggregate are anything but small: their 
combined area is fully 76 percent that of Eurasia, and their human popula- 
tion as of A.D. 1492 was probably also a large fraction of Eurasia's. But 
the Americas, as we have seen, are broken up into "islands" of societies 
with tenuous connections to each other. Perhaps the histories of Native 
American wheels and writing exemplify the principles illustrated in a more 
extreme form by true island societies. 

AFTER AT LEAST 13,000 years of separate developments, advanced 
American and Eurasian societies finally collided within the last thousand 
years. Until then, the sole contacts between human societies of the Old 
and the New Worlds had involved the hunter-gatherers on opposite sides 
of the Bering Strait. 

There were no Native American attempts to colonize Eurasia, except at 
the Bering Strait, where a small population of Inuit (Eskimos) derived from 


Alaska established itself across the strait on the opposite Siberian coast. 
The first documented Eurasian attempt to colonize the Americas was by 
the Norse at Arctic and sub-Arctic latitudes (Figure 18.1). Norse from 
Norway colonized Iceland in A.D. 874, then Norse from Iceland colonized 
Greenland in A.D. 986, and finally Norse from Greenland repeatedly vis- 
ited the northeastern coast of North America between about A.D. 1000 
and 1350. The sole Norse archaeological site discovered in the Americas 
is on Newfoundland, possibly the region described as Vinland in Norse 
sagas, but these also mention landings evidently farther north, on the 
coasts of Labrador and Baffin Island. 

Iceland's climate permitted herding and extremely limited agriculture, 
and its area was sufficient to support a Norse-derived population that has 
persisted to this day. But most of Greenland is covered by an ice cap, and 
even the two most favorable coastal fjords were marginal for Norse food 
production. The Greenland Norse population never exceeded a few thou- 
sand. It remained dependent on imports of food and iron from Norway, 
and of timber from the Labrador coast. Unlike Easter Island and other 

Figure 18.1. The Norse expansion from Norway across the North Atlan- 
tic, with dates or approximate dates when each area was reached. 

3 7 2 


remote Polynesian islands, Greenland could not support a self-sufficient 
food-producing society, though it did support self-sufficient Inuit hunter- 
gatherer populations before, during, and after the Norse occupation 
period. The populations of Iceland and Norway themselves were too small 
and too poor for them to continue their support of the Greenland Norse 

In the Little Ice Age that began in the 13th century, the cooling of the 
North Atlantic made food production in Greenland, and Norse voyaging 
to Greenland from Norway or Iceland, even more marginal than before. 
The Greenlanders' last known contact with Europeans came in 1410 with 
an Icelandic ship that arrived after being blown off course. When Europe- 
ans finally began again to visit Greenland in 1577, its Norse colony no 
longer existed, having evidently disappeared without any record during 
the 15th century. 

But the coast of North America lay effectively beyond the reach of ships 
sailing directly from Norway itself, given Norse ship technology of the 
period A.D. 986-1410. The Norse visits were instead launched from the 
Greenland colony, separated from North America only by the 200-mile 
width of Davis Strait. However, the prospect of that tiny marginal colony's 
sustaining an exploration, conquest, and settlement of the Americas was 
nil. Even the sole Norse site located on Newfoundland apparently repre- 
sents no more than a winter camp occupied by a few dozen people for a 
few years. The Norse sagas describe attacks on their Vinland camp by 
people termed Skraelings, evidently either Newfoundland Indians or Dor- 
set Eskimos. 

The fate of the Greenland colony, medieval Europe's most remote out- 
post, remains one of archaeology's romantic mysteries. Did the last Green- 
land Norse starve to death, attempt to sail off, intermarry with Eskimos, 
or succumb to disease or Eskimo arrows? While those questions of proxi- 
mate cause remain unanswered, the ultimate reasons why Norse coloniza- 
tion of Greenland and America failed are abundantly clear. It failed 
because the source (Norway), the targets (Greenland and Newfoundland), 
and the time (A.D. 984-1410) guaranteed that Europe's potential advan- 
tages of food production, technology, and political organization could not 
be applied effectively. At latitudes too high for much food production, the 
iron tools of a few Norse, weakly supported by one of Europe's poorer 
states, were no match for the stone, bone, and wooden tools of Eskimo 


and Indian hunter-gatherers, the world's greatest masters of Arctic survival 

THE SECOND EURASIAN attempt to colonize the Americas succeeded 
because it involved a source, target, latitude, and time that allowed 
Europe's potential advantages to be exerted effectively. Spain, unlike Nor- 
way, was rich and populous enough to support exploration and subsidize 
colonies. Spanish landfalls in the Americas were at subtropical latitudes 
highly suitable for food production, based at first mostly on Native Ameri- 
can crops but also on Eurasian domestic animals, especially cattle and 
horses. Spain's transatlantic colonial enterprise began in 1492, at the end 
of a century of rapid development of European oceangoing ship technol- 
ogy, which by then incorporated advances in navigation, sails, and ship 
design developed by Old World societies (Islam, India, China, and Indone- 
sia) in the Indian Ocean. As a result, ships built and manned in Spain itself 
were able to sail to the West Indies; there was nothing equivalent to the 
Greenland bottleneck that had throttled Norse colonization. Spain's New 
World colonies were soon joined by those of half a dozen other European 

The first European settlements in the Americas, beginning with the one 
founded by Columbus in 1492, were in the West Indies. The island Indi- 
ans, whose estimated population at the time of their "discovery" exceeded 
a million, were rapidly exterminated on most islands by disease, disposses- 
sion, enslavement, warfare, and casual murder. Around 1508 the first col- 
ony was founded on the American mainland, at the Isthmus of Panama. 
Conquest of the two large mainland empires, those of the Aztecs and Incas, 
followed in 1519-1520 and 1532-1533, respectively. In both conquests 
European-transmitted epidemics (probably smallpox) made major contri- 
butions, by killing the emperors themselves, as well as a large fraction of 
the population. The overwhelming military superiority of even tiny num- 
bers of mounted Spaniards, together with their political skills at exploiting 
divisions within the native population, did the rest. European conquest of 
the remaining native states of Central America and northern South 
America followed during the 16th and 17th centuries. 

As for the most advanced native societies of North America, those of 
the U.S. Southeast and the Mississippi River system, their destruction was 


accomplished largely by germs alone, introduced by early European 
explorers and advancing ahead of them. As Europeans spread throughout 
the Americas, many other native societies, such as the Mandans of the 
Great Plains and the Sadlermiut Eskimos of the Arctic, were also wiped 
out by disease, without need for military action. Populous native societies 
not thereby eliminated were destroyed in the same way the Aztecs and 
Incas had been — by full-scale wars, increasingly waged by professional 
European soldiers and their native allies. Those soldiers were backed by 
the political organizations initially of the European mother countries, then 
of the European colonial governments in the New World, and finally of 
the independent neo-European states that succeeded the colonial govern- 

Smaller native societies were destroyed more casually, by small-scale 
raids and murders carried out by private citizens. For instance, California's 
native hunter-gatherers initially numbered about 200,000 in aggregate, 
but they were splintered among a hundred tribelets, none of which 
required a war to be defeated. Most of those tribelets were killed off or 
dispossessed during or soon after the California gold rush of 1848-52, 
when large numbers of immigrants flooded the state. As one example, the 
Yahi tribelet of northern California, numbering about 2,000 and lacking 
firearms, was destroyed in four raids by armed white settlers: a dawn raid 
on a Yahi village carried out by 17 settlers on August 6, 1865; a massacre 
of Yahis surprised in a ravine in 1866; a massacre of 33 Yahis tracked to 
a cave around 1867; and a final massacre of about 30 Yahis trapped in 
another cave by 4 cowboys around 1868. Many Amazonian Indian groups 
were similarly eliminated by private settlers during the rubber boom of the 
late 19th and early 20th centuries. The final stages of the conquest are 
being played out in the present decade, as the Yanomamo and other Ama- 
zonian Indian societies that remain independent are succumbing to dis- 
ease, being murdered by miners, or being brought under control by 
missionaries or government agencies. 

The end result has been the elimination of populous Native American 
societies from most temperate areas suitable for European food production 
and physiology. In North America those that survived as sizable intact 
communities now live mostly on reservations or other lands considered 
undesirable for European food production and mining, such as the Arctic 
and arid areas of the U.S. West. Native Americans in many tropical areas 
have been replaced by immigrants from the Old World tropics (especially 


black Africans, along with Asian Indians and Javanese in Suriname). 

In parts of Central America and the Andes, the Native Americans were 
originally so numerous that, even after epidemics and wars, much of the 
population today remains Native American or mixed. That is especially 
true at high altitudes in the Andes, where genetically European women 
have physiological difficulties even in reproducing, and where native 
Andean crops still offer the most suitable basis for food production. How- 
ever, even where Native Americans do survive, there has been extensive 
replacement of their culture and languages with those of the Old World. 
Of the hundreds of Native American languages originally spoken in North 
America, all except 187 are no longer spoken at all, and 149 of these last 
187 are moribund in the sense that they are being spoken only by old 
people and no longer learned by children. Of the approximately 40 New 
World nations, all now have an Indo-European language or Creole as the 
official language. Even in the countries with the largest surviving Native 
American populations, such as Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, and Guatemala, a 
glance at photographs of political and business leaders shows that they are 
disproportionately Europeans, while several Caribbean nations have black 
African leaders and Guyana has had Asian Indian leaders. 

The original Native American population has been reduced by a 
debated large percentage: estimates for North America range up to 95 per- 
cent. But the total human population of the Americas is now approxi- 
mately ten times what it was in 1492, because of arrivals of Old World 
peoples (Europeans, Africans, and Asians). The Americas' population now 
consists of a mixture of peoples originating from all continents except Aus- 
tralia. That demographic shift of the last 500 years — the most massive 
shift on any continent except Australia — has its ultimate roots in develop- 
ments between about 11,000 B.C. and A.D. 1. 



beforehand, one's first impressions from actually being there are 
overwhelming. On the streets of Windhoek, capital of newly independent 
Namibia, I saw black Herero people, black Ovambos, whites, and Namas, 
different again from both blacks and whites. They were no longer mere 
pictures in a textbook, but living humans in front of me. Outside Wind- 
hoek, the last of the formerly widespread Kalahari Bushmen were strug- 
gling for survival. But what most surprised me in Namibia was a street 
sign: one of downtown Windhoek's main roads was called Goering Street! 

Surely, I thought, no country could be so dominated by unrepentant 
Nazis as to name a street after the notorious Nazi Reichskommissar and 
founder of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering! No, it turned out that the 
street instead commemorated Hermann's father, Heinrich Goering, found- 
ing Reichskommissar of the former German colony of South-West Africa, 
which became Namibia. But Heinrich was also a problematic figure, for 
his legacy included one of the most vicious attacks by European colonists 
on Africans, Germany's 1904 war of extermination against the Hereros. 
Today, while events in neighboring South Africa command more of the 
world's attention, Namibia as well is struggling to deal with its colonial 


past and establish a multiracial society. Namibia illustrated for me how 
inseparable Africa's past is from its present. 

Most Americans and many Europeans equate native Africans with 
blacks, white Africans with recent intruders, and African racial history 
with the story of European colonialism and slave trading. There is an obvi- 
ous reason why we focus on those particular facts: blacks are the sole 
native Africans familiar to most Americans, because they were brought in 
large numbers as slaves to the United States. But very different peoples 
may have occupied much of modern black Africa until as recently as a few 
thousand years ago, and so-called African blacks themselves are heteroge- 
neous. Even before the arrival of white colonialists, Africa already har- 
bored not just blacks but (as we shall see) five of the world's six major 
divisions of humanity, and three of them are confined as natives to Africa. 
One-quarter of the world's languages are spoken only in Africa. No other 
continent approaches this human diversity. 

Africa's diverse peoples resulted from its diverse geography and its long 
prehistory. Africa is the only continent to extend from the northern to the 
southern temperate zone, while also encompassing some of the world's 
driest deserts, largest tropical rain forests, and highest equatorial moun- 
tains. Humans have lived in Africa far longer than anywhere else: our 
remote ancestors originated there around 7 million years ago, and anatom- 
ically modern Homo sapiens may have arisen there since then. The long 
interactions between Africa's many peoples generated its fascinating pre- 
history, including two of the most dramatic population movements of the 
past 5,000 years — the Bantu expansion and the Indonesian colonization 
of Madagascar. All of those past interactions continue to have heavy con- 
sequences, because the details of who arrived where before whom are 
shaping Africa today. 

How did those five divisions of humanity get to be where they are now 
in Africa? Why were blacks the ones who came to be so widespread, rather 
than the four other groups whose existence Americans tend to forget? 
How can we ever hope to wrest the answers to those questions from Afri- 
ca's preliterate past, lacking the written evidence that teaches us about the 
spread of the Roman Empire? African prehistory is a puzzle on a grand 
scale, still only partly solved. As it turns out, the story has some little- 
appreciated but striking parallels with the American prehistory that we 
encountered in the preceding chapter. 

3 7 8 


THE FIVE MAJOR human groups to which Africa was already home by 
A.D. 1000 are those loosely referred to by laypeople as blacks, whites, 
African Pygmies, Khoisan, and Asians. Figure 19.1 depicts their distribu- 
tions, while the portraits following page 288 will remind you of their strik- 
ing differences in skin color, hair form and color, and facial features. 
Blacks were formerly confined to Africa, Pygmies and Khoisan still live 
only there, while many more whites and Asians live outside Africa than in 
it. These five groups constitute or represent all the major divisions of 
humanity except for Aboriginal Australians and their relatives. 

Many readers may already be protesting: don't stereotype people by 
classifying them into arbitrary "races"! Yes, I acknowledge that each of 
these so-called major groups is very diverse. To lump people as different 
as Zulus, Somalis, and Ibos under the single heading of "blacks" ignores 
the differences between them. We ignore equally big differences when we 
lump Africa's Egyptians and Berbers with each other and with Europe's 
Swedes under the single heading of "whites." In addition, the divisions 
between blacks, whites, and the other major groups are arbitrary, because 
each such group shades into others: all human groups on Earth have mated 
with humans of every other group that they encountered. Nevertheless, as 
we'll see, recognizing these major groups is still so useful for understand- 
ing history that I'll use the group names as shorthand, without repeating 
the above caveats in every sentence. 

Of the five African groups, representatives of many populations of 
blacks and whites are familiar to Americans and Europeans and need no 
physical description. Blacks occupied the largest area of Africa even as of 
A.D. 1400: the southern Sahara and most of sub-Saharan Africa (see Figure 
19.1). While American blacks of African descent originated mainly from 
Africa's west coastal zone, similar peoples traditionally occupied East 
Africa as well, north to the Sudan and south to the southeast coast of 
South Africa itself. Whites, ranging from Egyptians and Libyans to Moroc- 
cans, occupied Africa's north coastal zone and the northern Sahara. Those 
North Africans would hardly be confused with blue-eyed blond-haired 
Swedes, but most laypeople would still call them "whites" because they 
have lighter skin and straighter hair than peoples to the south termed 
"blacks." Most of Africa's blacks and whites depended on farming or 
herding, or both, for their living. 

In contrast, the next two groups, the Pygmies and Khoisan, include 


Peoples of Africa (as of ad 1400) 

Figure 19.1. See the text for caveats about describing distributions of Afri- 
can peoples in terms of these familiar but problematical groupings. 


hunter-gatherers without crops or livestock. Like blacks, Pygmies have 
dark skins and tightly curled hair. However, Pygmies differ from blacks in 
their much smaller size, more reddish and less black skins, more extensive 
facial and body hair, and more prominent foreheads, eyes, and teeth. Pyg- 
mies are mostly hunter-gatherers living in groups widely scattered through 
the Central African rain forest and trading with (or working for) neigh- 
boring black farmers. 

The Khoisan make up the group least familiar to Americans, who are 
unlikely even to have heard of their name. Formerly distributed over much 
of southern Africa, they consisted not only of small-sized hunter-gatherers, 
known as San, but also of larger herders, known as Khoi. (These names 
are now preferred to the better-known terms Hottentot and Bushmen.) 
Both the Khoi and the San look (or looked) quite unlike African blacks: 
their skins are yellowish, their hair is very tightly coiled, and the women 
tend to accumulate much fat in their buttocks (termed "steatopygia"). As 
a distinct group, the Khoi have been greatly reduced in numbers: European 
colonists shot, displaced, or infected many of them, and most of the survi- 
vors interbred with Europeans to produce the populations variously 
known in South Africa as Coloreds or Basters. The San were similarly 
shot, displaced, and infected, but a dwindling small number have pre- 
served their distinctness in Namibian desert areas unsuitable for agricul- 
ture, as depicted some years ago in the widely seen film The Gods Must Be 

The northern distribution of Africa's whites is unsurprising, because 
physically similar peoples live in adjacent areas of the Near East and 
Europe. Throughout recorded history, people have been moving back and 
forth between Europe, the Near East, and North Africa. I'll therefore say 
little more about Africa's whites in this chapter, since their origins aren't 
mysterious. Instead, the mystery involves blacks, Pygmies, and Khoisan, 
whose distributions hint at past population upheavals. For instance, the 
present fragmented distribution of the 200,000 Pygmies, scattered amid 
120 million blacks, suggests that Pygmy hunters were formerly widespread 
through the equatorial forests until displaced and isolated by the arrival 
of black farmers. The Khoisan area of southern Africa is surprisingly small 
for a people so distinct in anatomy and language. Could the Khoisan, too, 
have been originally more widespread until their more northerly popula- 
tions were somehow eliminated? 

I've saved the biggest anomaly for last. The large island of Madagascar 


lies only 250 miles off the East African coast, much closer to Africa than 
to any other continent, and separated by the whole expanse of the Indian 
Ocean from Asia and Australia. Madagascar's people prove to be a mix- 
ture of two elements. Not surprisingly, one element is African blacks, but 
the other consists of people instantly recognizable, from their appearance, 
as tropical Southeast Asians. Specifically, the language spoken by all the 
people of Madagascar — Asians, blacks, and mixed — is Austronesian and 
very similar to the Ma'anyan language spoken on the Indonesian island of 
Borneo, over 4,000 miles across the open Indian Ocean from Madagascar. 
No other people remotely resembling Borneans live within thousands of 
miles of Madagascar. 

These Austronesians, with their Austronesian language and modified 
Austronesian culture, were already established on Madagascar by the time 
it was first visited by Europeans, in 1500. This strikes me as the single 
most astonishing fact of human geography for the entire world. It's as if 
Columbus, on reaching Cuba, had found it occupied by blue-eyed, blond- 
haired Scandinavians speaking a language close to Swedish, even though 
the nearby North American continent was inhabited by Native Americans 
speaking Amerindian languages. How on earth could prehistoric people of 
Borneo, presumably voyaging in boats without maps or compasses, end 
up in Madagascar? 

THE CASE OF Madagascar tells us that peoples' languages, as well as 
their physical appearance, can yield important clues to their origins. Just 
by looking at the people of Madagascar, we'd have known that some of 
them came from tropical Southeast Asia, but we wouldn't have known 
from which area of tropical Southeast Asia, and we'd never have guessed 
Borneo. What else can we learn from African languages that we didn't 
already know from African faces? 

The mind-boggling complexities of Africa's 1,500 languages were clari- 
fied by Stanford University's great linguist Joseph Greenberg, who recog- 
nized that all those languages fall into just five families (see Figure 19.2 
for their distribution). Readers accustomed to thinking of linguistics as 
dull and technical may be surprised to learn what fascinating contributions 
Figure 19.2 makes to our understanding of African history. 

If we begin by comparing Figure 19.2 with Figure 19.1, we'll see a 
rough correspondence between language families and anatomically 


A Austronesian 

Figure 19.2. Language families of Africa. 

defined human groups: languages of a given language family tend to be 
spoken by distinct people. In particular, Afroasiatic speakers mostly prove 
to be people who would be classified as whites or blacks, Nilo-Saharan 
and Niger-Congo speakers prove to be blacks, Khoisan speakers Khoisan, 
and Austronesian speakers Indonesian. This suggests that languages have 
tended to evolve along with the people who speak them. 


Concealed at the top of Figure 19.2 is our first surprise, a big shock for 
Eurocentric believers in the superiority of so-called Western civilization. 
We're taught that Western civilization originated in the Near East, was 
brought to brilliant heights in Europe by the Greeks and Romans, and 
produced three of the world's great religions: Christianity, Judaism, and 
Islam. Those religions arose among peoples speaking three closely related 
languages, termed Semitic languages: Aramaic (the language of Christ and 
the Apostles), Hebrew, and Arabic, respectively. We instinctively associate 
Semitic peoples with the Near East. 

However, Greenberg determined that Semitic languages really form 
only one of six or more branches of a much larger language family, Afro- 
asiatic, all of whose other branches (and other 222 surviving languages) 
are confined to Africa. Even the Semitic subfamily itself is mainly African, 
12 of its 19 surviving languages being confined to Ethiopia. This suggests 
that Afroasiatic languages arose in Africa, and that only one branch of 
them spread to the Near East. Hence it may have been Africa that gave 
birth to the languages spoken by the authors of the Old and New Testa- 
ments and the Koran, the moral pillars of Western civilization. 

The next surprise in Figure 19.2 is a seeming detail on which I didn't 
comment when I just told you that distinct peoples tend to have distinct 
languages. Among Africa's five groups of people — blacks, whites, Pygmies, 
Khoisan, and Indonesians — only the Pygmies lack any distinct languages: 
each band of Pygmies speaks the same language as the neighboring group 
of black farmers. However, if one compares a given language as spoken 
by Pygmies with the same language as spoken by blacks, the Pygmy ver- 
sion seems to contain some unique words with distinctive sounds. 

Originally, of course, people as distinctive as the Pygmies, living in a 
place as distinctive as the equatorial African rain forest, were surely iso- 
lated enough to develop their own language family. However, today those 
languages are gone, and we already saw from Figure 19.1 that the Pyg- 
mies' modern distribution is highly fragmented. Thus, distributional and 
linguistic clues combine to suggest that the Pygmy homeland was engulfed 
by invading black farmers, whose languages the remaining Pygmies 
adopted, leaving only traces of their original languages in some words and 
sounds. We saw previously that much the same is true of the Malaysian 
Negritos (Semang) and Philippine Negritos, who adopted Austroasiatic 
and Austronesian languages, respectively, from the farmers who came to 
surround them. 


The fragmented distribution of Nilo-Saharan languages in Figure 19.2 
similarly implies that many speakers of those languages have been 
engulfed by speakers of Afroasiatic or Niger-Congo languages. But the 
distribution of Khoisan languages testifies to an even more dramatic 
engulfing. Those languages are famously unique in the whole world in 
their use of clicks as consonants. (If you've been puzzled by the name 
!Kung Bushman, the exclamation mark is not an expression of premature 
astonishment; it's just how linguists denote a click.) All existing Khoisan 
languages are confined to southern Africa, with two exceptions. Those 
exceptions are two very distinctive, click-laden Khoisan languages named 
Hadza and Sandawe, stranded in Tanzania more than 1,000 miles from 
the nearest Khoisan languages of southern Africa. 

In addition, Xhosa and a few other Niger-Congo languages of southern 
Africa are full of clicks. Even more unexpectedly, clicks or Khoisan words 
also appear in two Afroasiatic languages spoken by blacks in Kenya, 
stranded still farther from present Khoisan peoples than are the Hadza 
and Sandawe peoples of Tanzania. All this suggests that Khoisan languages 
and peoples formerly extended far north of their present southern African 
distribution, until they too, like the Pygmies, were engulfed by the blacks, 
leaving only linguistic legacies of their former presence. That's a unique 
contribution of the linguistic evidence, something we could hardly have 
guessed just from physical studies of living people. 

I have saved the most remarkable contribution of linguistics for last. If 
you look again at Figure 19.2, you'll see that the Niger-Congo language 
family is distributed all over West Africa and most of subequatorial Africa, 
apparently giving no clue as to where within that enormous range the fam- 
ily originated. However, Greenberg recognized that all Niger-Congo lan- 
guages of subequatorial Africa belong to a single language subgroup 
termed Bantu. That subgroup accounts for nearly half of the 1,032 Niger- 
Congo languages and for more than half (nearly 200 million) of the Niger- 
Congo speakers. But all those 500 Bantu languages are so similar to each 
other that they have been facetiously described as 500 dialects of a single 

Collectively, the Bantu languages constitute only a single, low-order 
subfamily of the Niger-Congo language family. Most of the 176 other sub- 
families are crammed into West Africa, a small fraction of the entire Niger- 
Congo range. In particular, the most distinctive Bantu languages, and the 
non-Bantu Niger-Congo languages most closely related to Bantu Ian- 


guages, are packed into a tiny area of Cameroon and adjacent eastern 

Evidently, the Niger-Congo language family arose in West Africa; the 
Bantu branch of it arose at the east end of that range, in Cameroon and 
Nigeria; and the Bantu then spread out of that homeland over most of 
subequatorial Africa. That spread must have begun long ago enough that 
the ancestral Bantu language had time to split into 500 daughter lan- 
guages, but nevertheless recently enough that all those daughter languages 
are still very similar to each other. Since all other Niger-Congo speakers, 
as well as the Bantu, are blacks, we couldn't have inferred who migrated 
in which direction just from the evidence of physical anthropology. 

To make this type of linguistic reasoning clear, let me give you a familiar 
example: the geographic origins of the English language. Today, by far 
the largest number of people whose first language is English live in North 
America, with others scattered over the globe in Britain, Australia, and 
other countries. Each of those countries has its own dialects of English. If 
we knew nothing else about language distributions and history, we might 
have guessed that the English language arose in North America and was 
carried overseas to Britain and Australia by colonists. 

But all those English dialects form only one low-order subgroup of the 
Germanic language family. All the other subgroups — the various Scandina- 
vian, German, and Dutch languages — are crammed into northwestern 
Europe. In particular, Frisian, the other Germanic language most closely 
related to English, is confined to a tiny coastal area of Holland and western 
Germany. Hence a linguist would immediately deduce correctly that the 
English language arose in coastal northwestern Europe and spread around 
the world from there. In fact, we know from recorded history that English 
really was carried from there to England by invading Anglo-Saxons in the 
fifth and sixth centuries A.D. 

Essentially the same line of reasoning tells us that the nearly 200 million 
Bantu people, now flung over much of the map of Africa, arose from Cam- 
eroon and Nigeria. Along with the North African origins of Semites and 
the origins of Madagascar's Asians, that's another conclusion that we 
couldn't have reached without linguistic evidence. 

We had already deduced, from Khoisan language distributions and the 
lack of distinct Pygmy languages, that Pygmies and Khoisan peoples had 
formerly ranged more widely, until they were engulfed by blacks. (I'm 
using "engulfing" as a neutral all-embracing word, regardless of whether 


the process involved conquest, expulsion, interbreeding, killing, or epi- 
demics.) We've now seen, from Niger-Congo language distributions, that 
the blacks who did the engulfing were the Bantu. The physical and linguis- 
tic evidence considered so far has let us infer these prehistoric engulfings, 
but it still hasn't solved their mysteries for us. Only the further evidence 
that I'll now present can help us answer two more questions: What advan- 
tages enabled the Bantu to displace the Pygmies and Khoisan? When did 
the Bantu reach the former Pygmy and Khoisan homelands? 

To APPROACH THE question about the Bantu's advantages, let's exam- 
ine the remaining type of evidence from the living present — the evidence 
derived from domesticated plants and animals. As we saw in previous 
chapters, that evidence is important because food production led to high 
population densities, germs, technology, political organization, and other 
ingredients of power. Peoples who, by accident of their geographic loca- 
tion, inherited or developed food production thereby became able to 
engulf geographically less endowed people. 

When Europeans reached sub-Saharan Africa in the 1400s, Africans 
were growing five sets of crops (Figure 19.3), each of them laden with 
significance for African history. The first set was grown only in North 
Africa, extending to the highlands of Ethiopia. North Africa enjoys a Med- 
iterranean climate, characterized by rainfall concentrated in the winter 
months. (Southern California also experiences a Mediterranean climate, 
explaining why my basement and that of millions of other southern Cali-i 
fornians often gets flooded in the winter but infallibly dries out in the 
summer.) The Fertile Crescent, where agriculture arose, enjoys that same 
Mediterranean pattern of winter rains. 

Hence North Africa's original crops all prove to be ones adapted to 
germinating and growing with winter rains, and known from archaeologi- 
cal evidence to have been first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent begin- 
ning around 10,000 years ago. Those Fertile Crescent crops spread into 
climatically similar adjacent areas of North Africa and laid the founda- 
tions for the rise of ancient Egyptian civilization. They include such famil- 
iar crops as wheat, barley, peas, beans, and grapes. These are familiar to 
us precisely because they also spread into climatically similar adjacent 
areas of Europe, thence to America and Australia, and became some of the 
staple crops of temperate-zone agriculture around the world. 


Origins of African crops, with examples 

Figure 19.3. The areas of origin of crops grown traditionally in Africa 
(that is, before the arrival of crops carried by colonizing Europeans), 
with examples of two crops from each area. 

As one travels south in Africa across the Saharan desert and reencoun-i 
ters rain in the Sahel zone just south of the desert, one notices that Sahel 
rains fall in the summer rather than in the winter. Even if Fertile Crescent 
crops adapted to winter rain could somehow have crossed the Sahara, they 
would have been difficult to grow in the summer-rain Sahel zone. Instead, 
we find two sets of African crops whose wild ancestors occur just south of 
the Sahara, and which are adapted to summer rains and less seasonal vari- 


ation in day length. One set consists of plants whose ancestors are widely 
distributed from west to east across the Sahel zone and were probably 
domesticated there. They include, notably, sorghum and pearl millet, 
which became the staple cereals of much of sub-Saharan Africa. Sorghum 
proved so valuable that it is now grown in areas with hot, dry climates on 
all the continents, including in the United States. 

The other set consists of plants whose wild ancestors occur in Ethiopia 
and were probably domesticated there in the highlands. Most are still 
grown mainly just in Ethiopia and remain unknown to Americans — 
including Ethiopia's narcotic chat, its banana-like ensete, its oily noog, its 
finger millet used to brew its national beer, and its tiny-seeded cereal called 
teff, used to make its national bread. But every reader addicted to coffee 
can thank ancient Ethiopian farmers for domesticating the coffee plant. It 
remained confined to Ethiopia until it caught on in Arabia and then 
around the world, to sustain today the economies of countries as far-flung 
as Brazil and Papua New Guinea. 

The next-to-last set of African crops arose from wild ancestors in the 
wet climate of West Africa. Some, including African rice, have remained 
virtually confined there; others, such as African yams, spread throughout 
other areas of sub-Saharan Africa; and two, the oil palm and kola nut, 
reached other continents. West Africans were chewing the caffeine-con- 
taining nuts of the latter as a narcotic, long before the Coca-Cola Com- 
pany enticed first Americans and then the world to drink a beverage 
originally laced with its extracts. 

The last batch of African crops is also adapted to wet climates but pro- 
vides the biggest surprise of Figure 19.3. Bananas, Asian yams, and taro 
were already widespread in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1400s, and Asian 
rice was established on the coast of East Africa. But those crops originated 
in tropical Southeast Asia. Their presence in Africa would astonish us, if 
the presence of Indonesian people on Madagascar had not already alerted 
us to Africa's prehistoric Asian connection. Did Austronesians sailing from 
Borneo land on the East African coast, bestow their crops on grateful Afri- 
can farmers, pick up African fishermen, and sail off into the sunrise to 
colonize Madagascar, leaving no other Austronesian traces in Africa? 

The remaining surprise is that all of Africa's indigenous crops — those 
of the Sahel, Ethiopia, and West Africa — originated north of the equator. 
Not a single African crop originated south of it. This already gives us a 


hint why speakers of Niger-Congo languages, stemming from north of the 
equator, were able to displace Africa's equatorial Pygmies and subequato- 
rial Khoisan people. The failure of the Khoisan and Pygmies to develop 
agriculture was due not to any inadequacy of theirs as farmers but merely 
to the accident that southern Africa's wild plants were mostly unsuitable 
for domestication. Neither Bantu nor white farmers, heirs to thousands of 
years of farming experience, were subsequently able to develop southern 
African native plants into food crops. 

Africa's domesticated animal species can be summarized much more 
quickly than its plants, because there are so few of them. The sole animal 
that we know for sure was domesticated in Africa, because its wild ances- 
tor is confined there, is a turkeylike bird called the guinea fowl. Wild 
ancestors of domestic cattle, donkeys, pigs, dogs, and house cats were 
native to North Africa but also to Southwest Asia, so we can't yet be cer- 
tain where they were first domesticated, although the earliest dates cur- 
rently known for domestic donkeys and house cats favor Egypt. Recent 
evidence suggests that cattle may have been domesticated independently in 
North Africa, Southwest Asia, and India, and that all three of those stocks 
have contributed to modern African cattle breeds. Otherwise, all the 
remainder of Africa's domestic mammals must have been domesticated 
elsewhere and introduced as domesticates to Africa, because their wild 
ancestors occur only in Eurasia. Africa's sheep and goats were domesti- 
cated in Southwest Asia, its chickens in Southeast Asia, its horses in south- 
ern Russia, and its camels probably in Arabia. 

The most unexpected feature of this list of African domestic animals is 
again a negative one. The list includes not a single one of the big wild 
mammal species for which Africa is famous and which it possesses in such 
abundance — its zebras and wildebeests, its rhinos and hippos, its giraffes 
and buffalo. As we'll see, that reality was as fraught with consequences for 
African history as was the absence of native domestic plants in subequato- 
rial Africa. 

This quick tour through Africa's food staples suffices to show that some 
of them traveled a long way from their points of origin, both inside and 
outside Africa. In Africa as elsewhere in the world, some peoples were 
much "luckier" than others, in the suites of domesticable wild plant and 
animal species that they inherited from their environment. By analogy with 
the engulfing of Aboriginal Australian hunter-gatherers by British colo- 


nists fed on wheat and cattle, we have to suspect that some of the "lucky" 
Africans parlayed their advantage into engulfing their African neighbors. 
Now, at last, let's turn to the archaeological record to find out who 
engulfed whom when. 

WHAT CAN ARCHAEOLOGY can tell us about actual dates and places 
for the rise of farming and herding in Africa? Any reader steeped in the 
history of Western civilization would be forgiven for assuming that African 
food production began in ancient Egypt's Nile Valley, land of the pharaohs 
and pyramids. After all, Egypt by 3000 B.C. was undoubtedly the site of 
Africa's most complex society, and one of the world's earliest centers of 
writing. In fact, though, possibly the earliest archaeological evidence for 
food production in Africa comes instead from the Sahara. 

Today, of course, much of the Sahara is so dry that it cannot support 
even grass. But between about 9000 and 4000 B.C. the Sahara was more 
humid, held numerous lakes, and teemed with game. In that period, Sahar-> 
ans began to tend cattle and make pottery, then to keep sheep and goats, 
and they may also have been starting to domesticate sorghum and millet. 
Saharan pastoralism precedes the earliest known date (5200 B.C.) for the 
arrival of food production in Egypt, in the form of a full package of South- 
west Asian winter crops and livestock. Food production also arose in West 
Africa and Ethiopia, and by around 2500 B.C. cattle herders had already 
crossed the modern border from Ethiopia into northern Kenya. 

While those conclusions rest on archaeological evidence, there is also 
an independent method for dating the arrival of domestic plants and ani- 
mals: by comparing the words for them in modern languages. Compari- 
sons of terms for plants in southern Nigerian languages of the Niger- 
Congo family show that the words fall into three groups. First are cases in 
which the word for a particular crop is very similar in all those southern 
Nigerian languages. Those crops prove to be ones like West African yams, 
oil palm, and kola nut — plants that were already believed on botanical 
and other evidence to be native to West Africa and first domesticated there. 
Since those are the oldest West African crops, all modern southern Nige- 
rian languages inherited the same original set of words for them. 

Next come crops whose names are consistent only among the languages 
falling within a small subgroup of those southern Nigerian languages. 
Those crops turn out to be ones believed to be of Indonesian origin, such 


as bananas and Asian yams. Evidently, those crops reached southern Nige- 
ria only after languages began to break up into subgroups, so each sub- 
group coined or received different names for the new plants, which the 
modern languages of only that particular subgroup inherited. Last come 
crop names that aren't consistent within language groups at all, but instead 
follow trade routes. These prove to be New World crops like corn and 
peanuts, which we know were introduced into Africa after the beginnings 
of transatlantic ship traffic (A.D. 1492) and diffused since then along trade 
routes, often bearing their Portuguese or other foreign names. 

Thus, even if we possessed no botanical or archaeological evidence 
whatsoever, we would still be able to deduce from the linguistic evidence 
alone that native West African crops were domesticated first, that Indone- 
sian crops arrived next, and that finally the European introductions came 
in. The UCLA historian Christopher Ehret has applied this linguistic 
approach to determining the sequence in which domestic plants and ani- 
mals became utilized by the people of each African language family. By a 
method termed glottochronology, based on calculations of how rapidly 
words tend to change over historical time, comparative linguistics can even 
yield estimated dates for domestications or crop arrivals. 

Putting together direct archaeological evidence of crops with the more 
indirect linguistic evidence, we deduce that the people who were domesti- 
cating sorghum and millet in the Sahara thousands of years ago spoke 
languages ancestral to modern Nilo-Saharan languages. Similarly, the peo- 
ple who first domesticated wet-country crops of West Africa spoke lan- 
guages ancestral to the modern Niger-Congo languages. Finally, speakers 
of ancestral Afroasiatic languages may have been involved in domesticat- 
ing the crops native to Ethiopia, and they certainly introduced Fertile Cres- 
cent crops to North Africa. 

Thus, the evidence derived from plant names in modern African lan- 
guages permits us to glimpse the existence of three languages being spoken 
in Africa thousands of years ago: ancestral Nilo-Saharan, ancestral Niger- 
Congo, and ancestral Afroasiatic. In addition, we can glimpse the exis- 
tence of ancestral Khoisan from other linguistic evidence, though not that 
of crop names (because ancestral Khoisan people domesticated no crops). 
Now surely, since Africa harbors 1,500 languages today, it is big enough 
to have harbored more than four ancestral languages thousands of years 
ago. But all those other languages must have disappeared — either because 
the people speaking them survived but lost their original language, like the 


Pygmies, or because the people themselves disappeared. 

The survival of modern Africa's four native language families (that is, 
the four other than the recently arrived Austronesian language of Mada- 
gascar) isn't due to the intrinsic superiority of those languages as vehicles 
for communication. Instead, it must be attributed to a historical accident: 
ancestral speakers of Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Afroasiatic hap- 
pened to be living at the right place and time to acquire domestic plants 
and animals, which let them multiply and either replace other peoples or 
impose their language. The few modern Khoisan speakers survived mainly 
because of their isolation in areas of southern Africa unsuitable for Bantu 

BEFORE WE TRACE Khoisan survival beyond the Bantu tide, let's see 
what archaeology tells us about Africa's other great prehistoric population 
movement — the Austronesian colonization of Madagascar. Archaeologists 
exploring Madagascar have now proved that Austronesians had arrived at 
least by A.D. 800, possibly as early as A.D. 300. There the Austronesians 
encountered (and proceeded to exterminate) a strange world of living ani- 
mals as distinctive as if they had come from another planet, because those 
animals had evolved on Madagascar during its long isolation. They 
included giant elephant birds, primitive primates called lemurs as big as 
gorillas, and pygmy hippos. Archaeological excavations of the earliest 
human settlements on Madagascar yield remains of iron tools, livestock, 
and crops, so the colonists were not just a small canoeload of fishermen 
blown off course; they formed a full-fledged expedition. How did that 
prehistoric 4,000-mile expedition come about? 

One hint is in an ancient book of sailors' directions, the Periplus of the 
Erythrean Sea, written by an anonymous merchant living in Egypt around 
A.D. 100. The merchant describes an already thriving sea trade connecting 
India and Egypt with the coast of East Africa. With the spread of Islam 
after A.D. 800, Indian Ocean trade becomes well documented archaeologi- 
cally by copious quantities of Mideastern (and occasionally even Chinese!) 
products such as pottery, glass, and porcelain in East African coastal settle- 
ments. The traders waited for favorable winds to let them cross the Indian 
Ocean directly between East Africa and India. When the Portuguese navi- 
gator Vasco da Gama became the first European to sail around the south- 
ern cape of Africa and reached the Kenya coast in 1498, he encountered 


Swahili trading settlements and picked up a pilot who guided him on that 
direct route to India. 

But there was an equally vigorous sea trade from India eastward, 
between India and Indonesia. Perhaps the Austronesian colonists of Mada- 
gascar reached India from Indonesia by that eastern trade route and then 
fell in with the westward trade route to East Africa, where they joined 
with Africans and discovered Madagascar. That union of Austronesians 
and East Africans lives on today in Madagascar's basically Austronesian 
language, which contains loan words from coastal Kenyan Bantu lan- 
guages. But there are no corresponding Austronesian loan words in 
Kenyan languages, and other traces of Austronesians are very thin on the 
ground in East Africa: mainly just Africa's possible legacy of Indonesian 
musical instruments (xylophones and zithers) and, of course, the Aus- 
tronesian crops that became so important in African agriculture. Hence 
one wonders whether Austronesians, instead of taking the easier route to 
Madagascar via India and East Africa, somehow (incredibly) sailed 
straight across the Indian Ocean, discovered Madagascar, and only later 
got plugged into East African trade routes. Thus, some mystery remains 
about Africa's most surprising fact of human geography. 

WHAT CAN ARCHAEOLOGY tell us about the other great population 
movement in recent African prehistory — the Bantu expansion? We saw 
from the twin evidence of modern peoples and their languages that sub- 
Saharan Africa was not always a black continent, as we think of it today. 
Instead, this evidence suggested that Pygmies had once been widespread in 
the rain forest of Central Africa, while Khoisan peoples had been wide- 
spread in drier parts of subequatorial Africa. Can archaeology test those 

In the case of the Pygmies, the answer is "not yet," merely because 
archaeologists have yet to discover ancient human skeletons from the Cen- 
tral African forests. For the Khoisan, the answer is "yes." In Zambia, to 
the north of the modern Khoisan range, archaeologists have found skulls 
of people possibly resembling the modern Khoisan, as well as stone tools 
resembling those that Khoisan peoples were still making in southern Africa 
at the time Europeans arrived. 

As for how the Bantu came to replace those northern Khoisan, archaeo- 
logical and linguistic evidence suggest that the expansion of ancestral 


Bantu farmers from West Africa's inland savanna south into its wetter 
coastal forest may have begun as early as 3000 B.C. (Figure 19.4). Words 
still widespread in all Bantu languages show that, already then, the Bantu 
had cattle and wet-climate crops such as yams, but that they lacked metal 
and were still engaged in much fishing, hunting, and gathering. They even 
lost their cattle to disease borne by tsetse flies in the forest. As they spread 
into the Congo Basin's equatorial forest zone, cleared gardens, and 
increased in numbers, they began to engulf the Pygmy hunter-gatherers 
and compress them into the forest itself. 

By soon after 1000 B.C. the Bantu had emerged from the eastern side of 
the forest into the more open country of East Africa's Rift Valley and Great 
Lakes. Here they encountered a melting pot of Afroasiatic and Nilo-> 
Saharan farmers and herders growing millet and sorghum and raising live- 
stock in drier areas, along with Khoisan hunter-gatherers. Thanks to their 
wet-climate crops inherited from their West African homeland, the Bantu 
were able to farm in wet areas of East Africa unsuitable for all those previ- 
ous occupants. By the last centuries B.C. the advancing Bantu had reached 
the East African coast. 

In East Africa the Bantu began to acquire millet and sorghum (along 
with the Nilo-Saharan names for those crops), and to reacquire cattle, 
from their Nilo-Saharan and Afroasiatic neighbors. They also acquired 
iron, which had just begun to be smelted in Africa's Sahel zone. The origins 
of ironworking in sub-Saharan Africa soon after 1000 B.C. are still 
unclear. That early date is suspiciously close to dates for the arrival of 
Near Eastern ironworking techniques in Carthage, on the North African 
coast. Hence historians often assume that knowledge of metallurgy 
reached sub-Saharan Africa from the north. On the other hand, copper 
smelting had been going on in the West African Sahara and Sahel since at 
least 2000 B.C. That could have been the precursor to an independent Afri- 
can discovery of iron metallurgy. Strengthening that hypothesis, the iron- 
smelting techniques of smiths in sub-Saharan Africa were so different from 
those of the Mediterranean as to suggest independent development: Afri- 
can smiths discovered how to produce high temperatures in their village 
furnaces and manufacture steel over 2,000 years before the Bessemer fur- 
naces of 19th-century Europe and America. 

With the addition of iron tools to their wet-climate crops, the Bantu 
had finally put together a military-industrial package that was unstoppable 
in the subequatorial Africa of the time. In East Africa they still had to 


The Bantu expansion: 3000 bc to ad 500 

• } v 

H = Bantu homeland, \ \ V~ ^ / 
3000 bc \ 1 \ A* 
\ I \ 

\ ' ^ \ 
) 1 v 
/ ' 1 

/ / i 

I * 1 J 

\ i / 

\ 1 r 
\ 1 i 

1 ' 

\ ' J 
\ 1 s 
\ ' i 
\ 'J 
\ ' f 
\ * / 

< _x 

Figure 19.4. Approximate paths of the expansion that carried people 
speaking Bantu languages, originating from a homeland (designated H) 
in the northwest corner of the current Bantu area, over eastern and south- 
ern Africa between 3000 B. C. and A.D. 500. 

3 9 6 


compete against numerous Nilo-Saharan and Afroasiatic Iron Age farm- 
ers. But to the south lay 2,000 miles of country thinly occupied by Khoisan 
hunter-gatherers, lacking iron and crops. Within a few centuries, in one of 
the swiftest colonizing advances of recent prehistory, Bantu farmers had 
swept all the way to Natal, on the east coast of what is now South Africa. 

It's easy to oversimplify what was undoubtedly a rapid and dramatic 
expansion, and to picture all Khoisan in the way being trampled by 
onrushing Bantu hordes. In reality, things were more complicated. Khoisan 
peoples of southern Africa had already acquired sheep and cattle a few 
centuries ahead of the Bantu advance. The first Bantu pioneers probably 
were few in number, selected wet-forest areas suitable for their yam 
agriculture, and leapfrogged over drier areas, which they left to Khoisan 
herders and hunter-gatherers. Trading and marriage relationships were 
undoubtedly established between those Khoisan and the Bantu farmers, 
each occupying different adjacent habitats, just as Pygmy hunter-gatherers 
and Bantu farmers still do today in equatorial Africa. Only gradually, as 
the Bantu multiplied and incorporated cattle and dry-climate cereals into 
their economy, did they fill in the leapfrogged areas. But the eventual result 
was still the same: Bantu farmers occupying most of the former Khoisan 
realm; the legacy of those former Khoisan inhabitants reduced to clicks in 
scattered non-Khoisan languages, as well as buried skulls and stone tools 
waiting for archaeologists to discover; and the Khoisan-like appearance of 
some southern African Bantu peoples. 

What actually happened to all those vanished Khoisan populations? We 
don't know. All we can say for sure is that, in places where Khoisan peo- 
ples had lived for perhaps tens of thousands of years, there are now Bantu. 
We can only venture a guess, by analogy with witnessed events in modern 
times when steel-toting white farmers collided with stone tool-using 
hunter-gatherers of Aboriginal Australia and Indian California. There, we 
know that hunter-gatherers were rapidly eliminated in a combination of 
ways: they were driven out, men were killed or enslaved, women were 
appropriated as wives, and both sexes became infected with epidemics of 
the farmers' diseases. An example of such a disease in Africa is malaria, 
which is borne by mosquitoes that breed around farmers' villages, and to 
which the invading Bantu had already developed genetic resistance but 
Khoisan hunter-gatherers probably had not. 

However, Figure 19.1, of recent African human distributions, reminds 
us that the Bantu did not overrun all the Khoisan, who did survive in 


southern African areas unsuitable for Bantu agriculture. The southernmost 
Bantu people, the Xhosa, stopped at the Fish River on South Africa's south 
coast, 500 miles east of Cape Town. It's not that the Cape of Good Hope 
itself is too dry for agriculture: it is, after all, the breadbasket of modern 
South Africa. Instead, the Cape has a Mediterranean climate of winter 
rains, in which the Bantu summer-rain crops do not grow. By 1652, the 
year the Dutch arrived at Cape Town with their winter-rain crops of Near 
Eastern origin, the Xhosa had still not spread beyond the Fish River. 

That seeming detail of plant geography had enormous implications for 
politics today. One consequence was that, once South African whites had 
quickly killed or infected or driven off the Cape's Khoisan population, 
whites could claim correctly that they had occupied the Cape before the 
Bantu and thus had prior rights to it. That claim needn't be taken seriously, 
since the prior rights of the Cape Khoisan didn't inhibit whites from dis- 
possessing them. The much heavier consequence was that the Dutch set- 
tlers in 1652 had to contend only with a sparse population of Khoisan 
herders, not with a dense population of steel-equipped Bantu farmers. 
When whites finally spread east to encounter the Xhosa at the Fish River 
in 1702, a period of desperate fighting began. Even though Europeans by 
then could supply troops from their secure base at the Cape, it took nine 
wars and 175 years for their armies, advancing at an average rate of less 
than one mile per year, to subdue the Xhosa. How could whites have suc- 
ceeded in establishing themselves at the Cape at all, if those first few arriv- 
ing Dutch ships had faced such fierce resistance? 

Thus, the problems of modern South Africa stem at least in part from a 
geographic accident. The homeland of the Cape Khoisan happened to con- 
tain few wild plants suitable for domestication; the Bantu happened to 
inherit summer-rain crops from their ancestors of 5,000 years ago; and 
Europeans happened to inherit winter-rain crops from their ancestors of 
nearly 10,000 years ago. Just as the sign "Goering Street" in the capital of 
newly independent Namibia reminded me, Africa's past has stamped itself 
deeply on Africa's present. 

THAT'S HOW THE Bantu were able to engulf the Khoisan, instead of vice 
versa. Now let's turn to the remaining question in our puzzle of African 
prehistory: why Europeans were the ones to colonize sub-Saharan Africa. 
That it was not the other way around is especially surprising, because 


Africa was the sole cradle of human evolution for millions of years, as well 
as perhaps the homeland of anatomically modern Homo sapiens. To these 
advantages of Africa's enormous head start were added those of highly 
diverse climates and habitats and of the world's highest human diversity. 
An extraterrestrial visiting Earth 10,000 years ago might have been for- 
given for predicting that Europe would end up as a set of vassal states of 
a sub-Saharan African empire. 

The proximate reasons behind the outcome of Africa's collision with 
Europe are clear. Just as in their encounter with Native Americans, Euro- 
peans entering Africa enjoyed the triple advantage of guns and other tech- 
nology, widespread literacy, and the political organization necessary to 
sustain expensive programs of exploration and conquest. Those advan- 
tages manifested themselves almost as soon as the collisions started: barely 
four years after Vasco da Gama first reached the East African coast, in 
1498, he returned with a fleet bristling with cannons to compel the surren- 
der of East Africa's most important port, Kilwa, which controlled the Zim- 
babwe gold trade. But why did Europeans develop those three advantages 
before sub-Saharan Africans could? 

As we have discussed, all three arose historically from the development 
of food production. But food production was delayed in sub-Saharan 
Africa (compared with Eurasia) by Africa's paucity of domesticable native 
animal and plant species, its much smaller area suitable for indigenous 
food production, and its north-south axis, which retarded the spread of 
food production and inventions. Let's examine how those factors oper- 

First, as regards domestic animals, we've already seen that those of sub- 
Saharan Africa came from Eurasia, with the possible exception of a few 
from North Africa. As a result, domestic animals did not reach sub- 
Saharan Africa until thousands of years after they began to be utilized by 
emerging Eurasian civilizations. That's initially surprising, because we 
think of Africa as the continent of big wild mammals. But we saw in Chap- 
ter 9 that a wild animal, to be domesticated, must be sufficiently docile, 
submissive to humans, cheap to feed, and immune to diseases and must 
grow rapidly and breed well in captivity. Eurasia's native cows, sheep, 
goats, horses, and pigs were among the world's few large wild animal spe- 
cies to pass all those tests. Their African equivalents — such as the African 
buffalo, zebra, bush pig, rhino, and hippopotamus — have never been 
domesticated, not even in modern times. 


It's true, of course, that some large African animals have occasionally 
been tamed. Hannibal enlisted tamed African elephants in his unsuccessful 
war against Rome, and ancient Egyptians may have tamed giraffes and 
other species. But none of those tamed animals was actually domesti- 
cated — that is, selectively bred in captivity and genetically modified so as 
to become more useful to humans. Had Africa's rhinos and hippos been 
domesticated and ridden, they would not only have fed armies but also 
have provided an unstoppable cavalry to cut through the ranks of Euro- 
pean horsemen. Rhino-mounted Bantu shock troops could have over- 
thrown the Roman Empire. It never happened. 

A second factor is a corresponding, though less extreme, disparity 
between sub-Saharan Africa and Eurasia in domesticable plants. The 
Sahel, Ethiopia, and West Africa did yield indigenous crops, but many 
fewer varieties than grew in Eurasia. Because of the limited variety of wild 
starting material suitable for plant domestication, even Africa's earliest 
agriculture may have begun several thousand years later than that of the 
Fertile Crescent. 

Thus, as far as plant and animal domestication was concerned, the head 
start and high diversity lay with Eurasia, not with Africa. A third factor is 
that Africa's area is only about half that of Eurasia. Furthermore, only 
about one-third of its area falls within the sub-Saharan zone north of the 
equator that was occupied by farmers and herders before 1000 B.C. Today, 
the total population of Africa is less than 700 million, compared with 4 
billion for Eurasia. But, all other things being equal, more land and more 
people mean more competing societies and inventions, hence a faster pace 
of development. 

The remaining factor behind Africa's slower rate of post-Pleistocene 
development compared with Eurasia's is the different orientation of the 
main axes of these continents. Like that of the Americas, Africa's major 
axis is north-south, whereas Eurasia's is east-west (Figure 10.1). As one 
moves along a north-south axis, one traverses zones differing greatly in 
climate, habitat, rainfall, day length, and diseases of crops and livestock. 
Hence crops and animals domesticated or acquired in one part of Africa 
had great difficulty in moving to other parts. In contrast, crops and ani- 
mals moved easily between Eurasian societies thousands of miles apart but 
at the same latitude and sharing similar climates and day lengths. 

The slow passage or complete halt of crops and livestock along Africa's 
north-south axis had important consequences. For example, the Mediter- 


ranean crops that became Egypt's staples require winter rains and seasonal 
variation in day length for their germination. Those crops were unable to 
spread south of the Sudan, beyond which they encountered summer rains 
and little or no seasonal variation in daylight. Egypt's wheat and barley 
never reached the Mediterranean climate at the Cape of Good Hope until 
European colonists brought them in 1652, and the Khoisan never devel- 
oped agriculture. Similarly, the Sahel crops adapted to summer rain and to 
little or no seasonal variation in day length were brought by the Bantu into 
southern Africa but could not grow at the Cape itself, thereby halting the 
advance of Bantu agriculture. Bananas and other tropical Asian crops for 
which Africa's climate is eminently suitable, and which today are among 
the most productive staples of tropical African agriculture, were unable to 
reach Africa by land routes. They apparently did not arrive until the first 
millennium A.D., long after their domestication in Asia, because they had 
to wait for large-scale boat traffic across the Indian Ocean. 

Africa's north-south axis also seriously impeded the spread of livestock. 
Equatorial Africa's tsetse flies, carrying trypanosomes to which native Afri- 
can wild mammals are resistant, proved devastating to introduced Eur- 
asian and North African species of livestock. The cows that the Bantu 
acquired from the tsetse-free Sahel zone failed to survive the Bantu expan- 
sion through the equatorial forest. Although horses had already reached 
Egypt around 1800 B.C. and transformed North African warfare soon 
thereafter, they did not cross the Sahara to drive the rise of cavalry- 
mounted West African kingdoms until the first millennium A.D., and they 
never spread south through the tsetse fly zone. While cattle, sheep, and 
goats had already reached the northern edge of the Serengeti in the third 
millennium B.C., it took more than 2,000 years beyond that for livestock 
to cross the Serengeti and reach southern Africa. 

Similarly slow in spreading down Africa's north-south axis was human 
technology. Pottery, recorded in the Sudan and Sahara around 8000 B.C., 
did not reach the Cape until around A.D. 1. Although writing developed 
in Egypt by 3000 B.C. and spread in an alphabetized form to the Nubian 
kingdom of Meroe, and although alphabetic writing reached Ethiopia 
(possibly from Arabia), writing did not arise independently in the rest of 
Africa, where it was instead brought in from the outside by Arabs and 

In short, Europe's colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differ- 


ences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists 
assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography — 
in particular, to the continents' different areas, axes, and suites of wild 
plant and animal species. That is, the different historical trajectories of 
Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate. 



human condition, and of post-Pleistocene human history. Now that 
we have completed this brief tour over the continents, how shall we 
answer Yali? 

I would say to Yali: the striking differences between the long-term his- 
tories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate 
differences in the peoples themselves but to differences in their environ- 
ments. I expect that if the populations of Aboriginal Australia and Eurasia 
could have been interchanged during the Late Pleistocene, the original 
Aboriginal Australians would now be the ones occupying most of the 
Americas and Australia, as well as Eurasia, while the original Aboriginal 
Eurasians would be the ones now reduced to downtrodden population 
fragments in Australia. One might at first be inclined to dismiss this asser- 
tion as meaningless, because the experiment is imaginary and my claim 
about its outcome cannot be verified. But historians are nevertheless able 
to evaluate related hypotheses by retrospective tests. For instance, one can 
examine what did happen when European farmers were transplanted to 
Greenland or the U.S. Great Plains, and when farmers stemming ultimately 
from China emigrated to the Chatham Islands, the rain forests of Borneo, 
or the volcanic soils of Java or Hawaii. These tests confirm that the same 

40 6 


ancestral peoples either ended up extinct, or returned to living as hunter- 
gatherers, or went on to build complex states, depending on their environ- 
ments. Similarly, Aboriginal Australian hunter-gatherers, variously trans- 
planted to Flinders Island, Tasmania, or southeastern Australia, ended up